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Nations intensify efforts to suppress Ebola outbreak

ABUJA, Nigeria — West African leaders quickened the pace of emergency efforts Thursday in response to a mounting tally of fatalities from the worst known outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, canceling travel plans and authorizing measures to combat the disease, including house-to-house searches and the deployment of the army and police.

The World Health Organization said the death toll had risen to 729 from 672, after 57 more people died during a four-day period between July 24 and 27 in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.

In the same period, 122 new cases were detected, bringing the total of confirmed and probably infected patients to 1,323. The toll is the highest in a single outbreak since the virus was identified almost four decades ago.

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The World Health Organization said it is launching a $100 million response plan calling for the deployment of several hundred additional health workers to help the strained resources in deeply impoverished West Africa, where hospital and clinics are ill-equipped to cope with the outbreak.

Federal health officials in the United States on Thursday advised Americans to avoid nonessential travel to the West African countries Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia because of the Ebola virus outbreak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “Level 3” warning, its most serious type of travel notice, indicating “high risk” to visitors in the affected countries.

This kind of advisory is uncommon and reserved for grave situations. It has been used in the past for the outbreak of the highly contagious respiratory disease SARS and for the earthquake in Haiti.

Desperate to contain the outbreak, President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone declared a public health emergency, calling for the deployment of security forces to quarantine the epicenters of infection. He also said he would not be making a planned visit to the United States.

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His actions followed steps announced in Liberia to close schools, put nonessential government workers on compulsory leave for 30 days, and order the deployment of security forces to combat the outbreak.

The Peace Corps, an outreach program run by the US government, said it was withdrawing its 340 volunteers from the three countries most affected by the virus.

“The epidemic is very big, very dispersed,” said Dr. Hilde de Clerck, the interim emergency coordinator in Sierra Leone for Doctors Without Borders. “It seems logical that the country is reacting. I do understand that the central government has to do something. Cases are now being reported in more southern regions. There is a geographical spread. We do see that it is several districts that are hit now.”

Nigeria recorded its only known death from Ebola when an American working in Liberia died there after landing in Lagos this month.

The airport authorities said Thursday they had begun checking passengers arriving from the three main affected countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea — for high temperatures and would order compulsory blood tests for those with worrisome symptoms. Airport checks are also in force in Sierra Leone, and Ghana announced new screening procedures Thursday.

In an address posted late Wednesday on the presidential website, Koroma said “all epicenters of the disease will be quarantined” along with “localities and homes where the disease is identified.”