(Updates with Red Cross saying international staff temporarily removed; adds MSF comment)
DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Red Cross said it had temporarily removed international staff from its Ebola operation in southeast Guinea, where an epidemic of the virus has killed hundreds of people, after staff members were threatened by a group of naked locals armed with knives.
The incident in Gueckedou, about 650 kms (403 miles) southeast of the capital Conakry, is the latest in a series of attacks against international health workers who have been accused of bringing the disease to Guinea.
A Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) centre in nearby Macenta was attacked by youths two months ago. In the past two weeks an MSF car with staff inside it had been pelted with stones by young men, the medical charity said.
The outbreak of the deadly disease in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is the largest and deadliest ever, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has reported 467 deaths from 759 known cases since February.
"Locals wielding knives surrounded a marked Red Cross vehicle. We've suspended operations for safety reasons. I imagine this won't be the last time this happens," a Red Cross official said, adding that the attackers were naked.
The Red Cross, which has been helping to identify potential cases of Ebola in Guinea, later said only international staff were removed and that operations had continued.
"We removed two international staff from Gueckedou, but they will return to work soon. Local staff and volunteers that live in the area remained," said Benoit Carpentier, senior public communications officer for the International Federation of the Red Cross in Geneva.
Marc Poncin, MSF's emergency coordinator in Guinea, said his staff faced constant intimidation from the locals.
"Young men stand around the car with sticks and scream that you’re not welcome, and there’ll be trouble," Poncin told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We are scared, and if you’re scared, you cannot put in place the measures to control the epidemic. You can’t do proper burials, or find suspected cases."
NO CURE, NO VACCINE
The withdrawal of the Red Cross’s international staff in Guinea came on the eve of a meeting in Ghana on Wednesday of 11 health ministers from West Africa to discuss how to stop the spread of the virus.
The outbreak in West Africa has left some of the world's poorest states, with porous borders and weak health systems undermined by war and misrule, grappling with one of the most lethal and contagious diseases on the planet.
The WHO said one of the major challenges to stopping the spread of the virus was cultural practices in rural communities where victims are buried according to traditional beliefs.
Ebola is spread through contact with infected tissues or body fluids, and kills up to 90 percent of those infected, with victims displaying flu-like symptoms before progressing to internal and external bleeding. There is no cure or vaccine.
With black magic and traditional medicine commonplace in West Africa, one text message circulating in the town of Gueckedou explains how a mixture of hot chocolate, Nescafe, sugar and lemon are the cure for Ebola.
Dan Epstein, a WHO spokesman, said it was a challenge to get public health officials to the communities where Ebola is being transmitted and deliver the appropriate messages.
"(We have to) teach people how to report Ebola cases, how to handle them, how to be safe if you are burying somebody who has Ebola and how to get people to report and stop transmitting Ebola," he said.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva)