World pledges Ebola action as infections soar

French Health Minister Marisol Touraine (C) attends a ministerial meeting on EU public health measures on the Ebola epidemic in Brussels, on October 16, 2014.

GENEVA - Ebola's escalating spread constitutes the worst global health emergency in years, world leaders warned, vowing to dramatically step up the response to the virus that has already killed nearly 4,500 people.

As of Sunday, 4,493 people had died out of a total of 8,997 cases in the outbreak now affecting seven countries, according to latest figures from the World Health Organisation.

US President Barack Obama on Wednesday called on the world to do more, while insisting his own country would be "much more aggressive" in its response, after a second Texas hospital worker tested positive for the disease.

The fact that the newly infected Dallas caregiver took a domestic flight the day before she was quarantined magnified global fears about air travel.

Obama tried to ease those fears, but urged his counterparts from Britain, France, Germany and Italy to better coordinate their plans to combat the outbreak.

France said Thursday it will start carrying out health checks this weekend on all travellers arriving by plane from Guinea, one of the worst-hit nations.

Medics at Paris's main international Charles de Gaulle airport will take the temperature of passengers arriving from the daily flights still operating from the Guinean capital Conakry, Health Minister Marisol Touraine told AFP.

Worst public health emergency

Airports in Britain, Canada and the United States have already introduced stepped-up screening of travellers arriving from West Africa.

Senior US lawmakers overseeing homeland security also joined calls Wednesday for a temporary ban on all travel from West Africa.

The hemorrhagic virus has ravaged West African countries Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone since the start of the year, and outside the region, cases have begun surfacing in the United States and Spain.

The WHO warned this week that the infection rate could reach 10,000 a week by early December in a worst-case scenario.

"Leaders agreed that this was the most serious international public health emergency in recent years and that the international community needed to do much more and faster," British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said.

European Union health ministers are to meet in Brussels on Thursday, with member states under pressure to follow Washington in sending troops to West Africa to help fight the virus.

The UN Security Council urged the international community to "accelerate and dramatically expand" aid to the West African countries battling the epidemic.

Rights sacrificed

But as the world scrambles to rein in the raging virus, UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein cautioned Thursday that respect for the rights of survivors and affected communities risked being sacrificed.

"The ability of Ebola to lay waste to human lives on an immense scale is now being realised," he told reporters in Geneva.

He added: "Its potential to devastate the human rights of those who survive, of entire countries and regions, is barely being considered." He also stressed that a disregard for human rights to things like health, education, sanitation and good governance had allowed Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia to become fertile ground for the outbreak in the first place.

The Red Cross also urged the international community to focus less on dramatic actions like shutting down airports and entire countries and more on engaging with populations to alter behaviours allowing the outbreak to swell.

"It's a race against time really," Matthias Schmale, under secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) told reporters in Geneva.

When faced with deeply engrained traditions, it is not enough to simply tell people they need to quickly bury the dead without touching highly contagious bodies, he said.

"In cultures that depend a lot on touching people when you say your final goodbyes, that's a hard, (although) rational thing to do," he said. "Sharing information is not the same as understanding and learning." Meanwhile, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an alert for all passengers who travelled on an October 13 flight from Cleveland, Ohio to Texas.

Authorities want to interview 132 people who flew on a plane with an Ebola-infected nurse - the second American to be infected within the United States - who had not yet become symptomatic.

CDC chief Thomas Frieden said the case was "very concerning" and warned that health workers who have been exposed to Ebola patients should not use public transport.

Ebola is only transmitted by contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person who has fever, diarrhoea or vomiting.

Both women infected in Texas treated a Liberian Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, who died in Dallas on October 8.

A Spanish nurse infected after treating an elderly missionary who died of Ebola was said to be in stable condition, but a Sudanese doctor who had worked as a UN volunteer in Liberia died in Germany Monday.

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