Conflict-scarred Mali pulls out the stops to beat Ebola

The leader of the war-torn west African nation of Mali has come in person to galvanise his people as they do battle with the most elusive foe they have ever faced.

Kouremale: The leader of the war-torn west African nation of Mali has come in person to galvanise his people as they do battle with the most elusive foe they have ever faced.

On the country`s remote southern border with Guinea, the enemy is not the armed jihadists who wreak havoc elsewhere, but the Ebola virus, which has sparked a national crisis despite just four deaths.

On a strip of dusty asphalt a cavalcade of several dozen government vehicles comes to a halt in the southern frontier town of Kouremale, which is almost perfectly bisected by the border with Guinea. 

This was the home of the Guinean Islamic cleric whose death in one of the Malian capital`s clinics led to an emergency counter-offensive which has placed more than 550 people who, according to the World Health Organization, may have been exposed to Ebola under observation.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita gets down from his car and washes his hands in an ostentatious show that he is setting the example, a call for vigilance in the face of an infectious and deadly tropical pathogen.

"Do not let anyone cross the border without taking his temperature. Remain vigilant to defeat Ebola," he tells a team of doctors and nurses sitting in a tent. 

The team nod their agreement and their leader, a doctor named Mamoute Diarra, replies that all vehicles from Guinea are being disinfected under a new action plan, their passengers and drivers subjected to temperature checks.Walls across the town are festooned with posters bearing grave warnings of the consequences of complacency.

"Ebola is a fearsome disease, be very careful," says one, while another implores "Let us work together to deal with the killer Ebola" and a third chides "Warning: take all precautions so that the disease does not take over".

Malick Kante, a local representative of the National Youth Council of Mali, leads an awareness campaign for his neighbours.

"In northern Mali, we have problems with rebels and Islamists. Here in the south, it is Ebola that stops us from sleeping. From both sides, the fight must be relentless," he says.

Kante says 150 young activists volunteer every morning as part of the campaign, helping doctors and border control officials. 

Others bike around the Malian side of the town looking for sick Guineans who may have entered illegally.

On the southwestern side of the frontier, dozens of Guineans congregate to welcome the Malian head of state.

"We are really afraid of Ebola but we`re also afraid to see the border close," says Ali Kourouma, a young, jobless Guinean. 

His neighbour shares his anxieties, although Keita has categorically ruled out closing the border with Guinea in its entirety.

Taxi driver Issa Camara, worried about his livelihood, complained that he has had no passengers since border controls were tightened.Nearby, a policeman in ceremonial robes says several crossing points have been closed since the crisis hit last week, with only Kouremale remaining open.

He denounces the "many shenanigans" that allowed the Guinean imam, who was already clearly ill, to cross into Mali before dying in Bamako`s Pasteur clinic on October 27.

Before breathing his last, the 70-year-old infected a nurse, who died on November 11, and a doctor who is fighting for his life.

A friend of the imam who visited him in the clinic and someone else living in a house in Bamako where he was taken after his death have also died, according to local health authorities.

Another police source told AFP the imam had managed to bribe several people at a clinic in Kouremale, at the border and in Bamako who helped him on his way, turning a blind eye to his fever.

The Pasteur outbreak is the second in Mali, following the death of a two-year-old girl who had travelled with her grandmother from Guinea to the western town of Kayes in early October.

That case was contained, however, with no further infections.

Mali launched a judicial inquiry into the crisis on Monday.

"But for us here, now is time for the thankless fight against the disease," said Health Minister Ousmane Kone.

He told locals of "577 people under observation who at this stage are uninfected but who could have had contact with carriers of the virus" and called for vigilance.

The appeal was hammered home by the president as he wrapped up his visit at a rally in front of several thousand Malian and Guinean nationals to conclude his visit.

"We will defeat Ebola," he said, "but it will depend on our efforts, our determination."