By Misha Hussain
DAKAR, July 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Red Cross in Guinea said on Wednesday it had been forced to suspend operations tackling Ebola in the country's southeast after staff there were threatened by a group of men armed with knives.
The incident on Tuesday in Gueckedou, about 650 kms (403 miles) southeast of the capital Conakry, is the latest in a series against health workers, undermining efforts to help the region's weak health systems fight one of the world's deadliest diseases.
A Medicins Sans Frontieres centre in nearby Macenta was attacked by youths two months ago after staff there were accused of bringing the disease to Guinea.
"Locals wielding knives surrounded a marked Red Cross vehicle. We've suspended operations for safety reasons," a Red Cross official in West Africa said, asking not to be named.
"I imagine this won't be the last time this happens," he added.
The outbreak of the disease in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is the largest and deadliest ever, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The organisation has recorded 467 deaths from 759 known cases since February.
Local and foreign doctors are battling a deep-rooted fear and lack of understanding of the disease, which has driven dozens of victims to evade treatment and made it harder to track patients.
Health ministers from 11 West African states are meeting in Accra, Ghana, on Wednesday and Thursday to try to coordinate the regional response to the epidemic.
WHO has flagged three main factors driving the spread of Ebola - the burial of victims in accordance with cultural practices and traditional beliefs in rural communities, the dense population around the capital cities of Guinea and Liberia and the bustling cross-border trade across the region.
<For a map of the region affected by Ebola, please click - http://link.reuters.com/fyj32w >
Ebola causes fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhoea and can kill up to 90 percent of those it infects. Highly contagious, it is transmitted through contact with the blood or other fluids of infected people or animals.
Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has called the crisis a national public health emergency.
Addressing his nation for the first time about the issue late on Tuesday, Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma called for leaders on all sides of the political divide to work together to tackle the crisis.
"This is a national fight. And all must be involved," he said. Koroma said that the government and the U.N. World Food Programme had started providing food aid to 30,000 people in the two districts affected by Ebola. (Additional reporting by Umaru Fofana; Editing by Bate Felix, David Lewis and Sonya Hepinstall)