ABUJA, Nigeria — As fatalities mounted in West Africa from the worst known outbreak of the Ebola virus, the head of the World Health Organization said Friday that the disease was moving faster than efforts to curb it, with potentially catastrophic consequences including a “high risk” that it will spread.
The assessment was among the most dire since the outbreak was identified in March. The outbreak has been blamed for the deaths of 729 people, according to WHO figures, and left more than 1,300 people with confirmed or suspected infections.
Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO director general, was speaking as she met with the leaders of the three most affected countries — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — in Conakry, the Guinean capital, for the introduction of a $100 million plan to deploy hundreds more medical professionals in support of overstretched regional and international health workers.
“This meeting must mark a turning point in the outbreak response,” Chan said, according to a WHO transcript of her remarks. “If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.”
She said the outbreak was “caused by the most lethal strain in the family of Ebola viruses.”
The gathering in Conakry came a day after West African leaders seemed to quicken the pace of efforts to combat the disease, in what some analysts depicted as a belated acknowledgment that the response had been inadequate.
Indeed, before the meeting started, there were indications of discord.
The leader of Guinea’s Ebola task force said that emergency measures in Liberia, where schools have been closed, and Sierra Leone could set back efforts to control the worst outbreak of the virus since it was identified almost four decades ago.
“Currently, some measures taken by our neighbors could make the fight against Ebola even harder,” Aboubacar Sidiki Diakité, the Ebola task force leader, told Reuters.
“When children are not supervised, they can go anywhere and make the problem worse. It is part of what we will be talking about.”
Sierra Leone’s emergency measures include house-to-house searches for infected people and the deployment of the army and the police.
One person, traveling from Liberia, died in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, which introduced airport screening of travelers from the stricken region Thursday.
Two American health workers in Liberia have been infected. Plans were underway to bring the workers — Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly — back to the United States. A specially equipped private jet based in Atlanta has been dispatched to Liberia.
Chan said the virus seemed to be spreading in ways never seen before.
“It is taking place in areas with fluid population movements over porous borders, and it has demonstrated its ability to spread via air travel,” she said.
Making matters worse, health workers have been hit particularly hard. Top doctors in Sierra Leona and Liberia have died. The two American aid workers who have contracted Ebola were to be taken to Emory University in Atlanta for treatment.
According to the WHO, the $100 million plan “identifies the need for several hundred more personnel to be deployed in affected countries to supplement overstretched treatment facilities.”
Hundreds of international aid workers and WHO specialists “are already supporting national and regional response efforts,” the statement said. “But more are urgently required. Of greatest need are clinical doctors and nurses, epidemiologists, social mobilization experts, logisticians, and data managers.”
As the alarms about the outbreak grew, so, too, have concerns that the disease will be carried farther afield by travelers from the stricken countries, despite official efforts to tamp down such fears.
The African Union, for instance, announced Friday that it was postponing a routine rotation of its peacekeeping force in Somalia for fear that new soldiers arriving from Sierra Leone could be infected.
The Philippines said Friday that it was introducing health screening for travelers from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, who would be screened when they arrived and monitored for a month.
Lebanon was reported to have suspended work permits for residents of the same three countries, news reports said.