MONROVIA, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Liberians packed churches in the capital Monrovia on Sunday to seek solace from an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, defying official warnings to avoid public gatherings to try to contain an epidemic that has killed nearly 1,000 people in West Africa.
With its creaking healthcare system completely overrun, Liberia declared a state of emergency last week to tackle the highly contagious and incurable disease, which has also stricken neighbouring Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.
People still flocked to sing and pray in churches in the ramshackle ocean-front capital, many of them comparing Ebola to the brutal civil war that ravaged the country between 1989 and 2003, killing nearly a quarter of a million people.
“Everyone is so afraid,” said Martee Jones Seator at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church. “Ebola is not going to shake our faith in any way ... because we’ve been through difficult times.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that the world’s worst outbreak of Ebola will likely continue for months, as the region’s healthcare systems struggle to cope, and it has appealed for funding and emergency medical staff.
With the disease now in four African countries - following the death in Nigeria last month of a U.S. citizen who arrived from Liberia - the WHO on Friday classified the epidemic as an international health emergency.
A WHO medical ethics committee is due to discuss next week the use of experimental drugs in tackling the outbreak after two U.S. aid workers appeared to show some improvement after being treated with ZMapp, a drug developed by California-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical.
British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline said on Sunday a clinical trial of another experimental vaccine was due to start shortly. But even if it is fast-tracked, the new treatment would not be ready for deployment before next year.
Spain on Sunday authorised the use of the ZMapp on 75-year-old Spanish priest Miguel Pajares - the first European infected - who was evacuated to Madrid last week after contracting the virus working in a hospital in Liberia. A Congolese nun who worked with him died on Saturday in Monrovia.
Outside churches in the capital, plastic buckets with taps containing chlorinated water sat on stools, allowing worshippers to disinfect their hands. Inside, pastors told their congregations to follow instructions from health workers, some of whom have been attacked by locals terrified by the disease.
“We are in trouble here. We are in trouble,” Reverend Marcus MacKay, dressed in a green gown, said before the altar. “But you know what? There is no way this devil is going to do its work!”
Scientists believe that West Africa’s first Ebola epidemic began in early December near Gueckedou in the remote forest region of southeastern Guinea, near the border with Liberia and Sierra Leone. Yet it is not clear how the virus jumped from central Africa, where it is regarded as endemic.
National emergencies have since been declared in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria, which now has seven confirmed cases of Ebola. Guinea said on Saturday it was tightening health checks at border crossings.
With healthcare workers unprepared to cope with the virus - which initially presents symptoms similar to malaria - many have died, exacerbating chronic staffing problems. Liberia alone has lost at least three doctors to the virus and 32 health workers.
The coordinator of Medecins Sans Frontieres in Liberia, Lindis Hurum, has called the situation in the country “catastrophic”. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Saturday pledged up to $18 million to help protect workers, fund more ambulances and to increase the number of treatment centres.
Burkina Faso became the latest African country on Sunday to announce stringent airport health checks and border controls to protect itself from infection. Zambia said on Saturday it would ban its citizens from travelling to countries hit by the virus.
In Senegal, which borders Guinea to the north, a man had been isolated in the northern region of Matam while tests were conducted for Ebola, the APS state news agency reported.
Tests on suspected cases in Hong Kong, Canada and Saudi Arabia in recent days have all proved negative. (Reporting by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Stephen Powell)