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Mali suspects first Ebola cases as regional death toll tops 90

By Adama Diarra and Misha Hussain

BAMAKO/CONAKRY (Reuters) - Mali said it had identified its first possible cases of Ebola since the start of an outbreak in neighboring Guinea, adding to fears that the deadly virus was spreading across West Africa.

More than 90 people have already died in Guinea and Liberia in what medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has warned could turn into an unprecedented epidemic in an impoverished region with poor health services.

Foreign mining companies have locked down operations and pulled out some international staff in mineral-rich Guinea. French health authorities have also put doctors and hospitals on alert in case people travelling to and from former colonies in the region pick up the disease.

Three people in Mali had been placed in quarantine and samples sent off to Atlanta in the United States for tests, the government said on state television late on Thursday.

"A high-speed intervention team has been created to follow the evolution of the situation on the ground," the statement said. It added that the health of the three suspected victims was showing signs of improving.

The latest outbreak originated in Guinea two months ago and has since spread to its neighbors Sierra Leone and Liberia. Gambia has placed two people in quarantine although the Health Ministry since said the cases were negative.

Guinea's Health Ministry said two more suspected victims of the virus had died, bringing its death count to 86.

Liberia also reported three new deaths among its suspected 14 cases, raising its death toll to seven.

"We need to fight to contain it. A medical team from (medical charity) MSF came today to help train some of our health workers," Liberia's health minister, Walter Gwenegale, said.

FEAR AND MISTRUST

The disease, which has killed 1,500 people since it was first recorded in 1976 in what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, causes vomiting, diarrhoea and external bleeding. It has a fatality rate of up to 90 percent.

Many health systems in West Africa are poorly equipped to deal with an epidemic and aid workers have warned of the difficulty of fighting infections scattered across several locations and in densely populated areas such as Guinea's capital Conakry.

Some blame the government for not immediately quarantining an individual who carried the virus from the remote south, where the bulk of the 137 cases are reported, to the capital.

There are now 16 cases in Conkary, of whom five have died, a WHO spokesman said on Friday.

"How can we trust them now? We have to look after ourselves," said Guinean Dede Diallo, who has stopped working and kept her children at home since the outbreak.

Conakry's luxury five-star Palm Camayenne Hotel, popular among businessmen and politicians, is running at less than a third of occupancy, according to a receptionist.

Flight data told a similar story. A return Brussels Airlines flight between the Belgian capital and Conakry on Thursday had just 55 people arriving and 200 leaving, an airline employee said.

Regional airline Gambia Bird delayed the start of a route to Conakry due to begin last weekend while Senegal has closed its border with Guinea because of the outbreak.

(Reporting by Adama Diarra, Saliou Samb and Misha Hussain in Conakry for the Thomson Reuters Foundation; Additional reporting by Alphonso Toweh in Monrovia and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alison Williams)

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