Bamoko - Nurses and other people who have come into contact with the first Ebola patient in Mali were isolated on Friday as concerns mounted that an epidemic that has killed 4,900 people in neighbouring West African states could take hold in the country.
Mali confirmed its first case of Ebola on Thursday and said the two-year-old girl was being treated in the western town of Kayes. She was brought by relatives from neighbouring Guinea, where the epidemic was detected in March, after her mother died of the disease.
On the dusty streets of the capital Bamako, residents voiced alarm after health officials said the girl had spent 10 days in the city's Bagadadji district before travelling on Sunday to Kayes, some 400 km to the northwest near the Senegalese border.
"I am afraid because, with my job, I am in permanent contact with people but I can't afford to just stop," said taxi driver Hamidou Bamba, 46, in Bamako. "Today is Friday so let us pray to Allah that this disease will not spread in Mali."
Diplomatic sources also expressed concern about the preparedness of the poor nation to contain an outbreak that has ravaged three neighbouring countries. Mali, home to a large U.N. peacekeeping mission, is still battling northern Islamists after a brief French-led war last year.
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One diplomatic source, briefed by authorities, said the girl was showing symptoms of the disease when she arrived in Kayes, three days before she was isolated for suspected Ebola.
Six nurses who treated the girl at a hospital in Kayes had been isolated for treatment, the source said, but noted it was not clear how quickly this was done. The girl first came for treatment on Monday but was not confirmed to have the disease until Thursday.
A further 26 contacts had been isolated at the CNAM national medical centre in Bamako, the source said.
A Malian Health Ministry official, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters that authorities estimated that at least 300 people had been in contact with the infected child.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it was sending experts to help Mali fight the outbreak. The U.N. health agency says at least 4,877 people are recorded to have died from the epidemic - mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - though the actual death toll is likely to be several times higher.
Ivory Coast on Alert
Hours before Mali confirmed the case, WHO Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda said the agency had "reasonable confidence" that there was not widespread transmission of the Ebola virus into neighbouring countries.
Mali, together with cocoa producer Ivory Coast, has put in place border controls to stem the stop Ebola at its frontiers. However, a visit to Mali's border with Guinea by Reuters this month showed vehicles avoiding a health checkpoint set up by Malian authorities by simply driving through the bush.
Ivory Coast, the world's largest producer of the raw material for chocolate, was also on alert after Guinean authorities informed them that an Ivorian doctor working in Guinea had slipped surveillance and headed for the border after discovering one of his patients had contracted Ebola.
"He disappeared on Wednesday. We don't know if he actually crossed the border," said Daouda Coulibaly, head of the epidemiological monitoring service at the National Health Institute and the leader of the Ebola effort.
"He's a contact person. This isn't a case of infection. We're asking him to contact our health authorities."
A mission from the Red Cross was travelling to Mali to provide authorities with support, alongside medical charities Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Alima.
"I am afraid, but I trust our health authorities," said Mariam Diawara, a 39-year-old project manager in Bamako. "After a moment of panic, the best thing we can do now is to inform and educate the population about this disease and how to protect themselves."