Conakry - French President Francois Hollande arrived Friday in Guinea, becoming the first Western leader to visit a country hit hard by Ebola.
Guinea's president greeted his French counterpart at the airport as an off-key brass military band played. French health workers responding to the Ebola crisis also greeted Hollande.
Hollande will visit an Ebola treatment center at the capital's main hospital. He will also have a longer meeting with President Alpha Conde and with French health workers. The visit is to last eight hours during which he will take stock of a medical response hampered by poor coordination and help demystify fears about the stigmatizing virus.
Also read: Sierra Leone goes hungry as Ebola targets prove elusive
Nearly a year since the first patient died in a southeastern village of Guinea, at least 25 villages in the country's forested and mountainous southeast still refuse to allow entry by health workers who are trying to trace potential cases, according to human rights groups at a seminar this week on the response to Ebola.
The disease has ravaged three West African countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and sickened nearly 16,000 people, making it by far the largest Ebola outbreak in history. This epidemic has presented challenges never seen before: infecting thousands over an enormous area, including in cities, where it has whipped around populations faster than doctors have been able to keep up, and in remote areas, where it has been difficult to send help.
Because West Africa had never before seen an outbreak, Ebola is typically found in east or central Africa people unfamiliar with the disease have been resistant to help.
All of this has forced a new kind of response: larger treatment centers than ever before seen but also an increasingly need for rapid-response teams that can be helicoptered into remote areas. The response has been particularly stymied by the difficulty of transporting potentially infectious blood samples long distances on poor roads; recently, samples being transported by taxi in Guinea were stolen by bandits.
But the U.S. ambassador to Liberia said in a telephone interview Friday that a contract will be signed soon that will allow such samples, and even perhaps patients, to be flown by helicopter out of remote areas and brought to labs and treatment centers. The U.S. military has already airlifted rapid-response teams of epidemiologists and health officials into remote areas, but it will not be transporting the blood samples, said Ambassador Deborah Malac.
The response is constantly being recalibrated, she said, as it the epidemic shifts. In Liberia, which has recorded the highest number of cases, for instance, the infection is slowing. Plans for some large treatment centers, thought to be desperately needed just weeks ago, have been scrapped, and officials are focusing more on mobile teams or smaller care centers. But those plans have been slow to get off the ground.
With the outbreak stabilizing in Liberia, the government there has said it hopes there will be no new cases by Christmas. But Malac cautioned that the disease is unpredictable.
"We're still getting new cases every day," she said, and each new case puts others at risk. "None of us know for sure what will happen. All we can to do is continue to drive toward zero."