By Alphonso Toweh and Saliou Samb
MONROVIA/CONAKRY (Reuters) - West African nations scrambled on Tuesday to contain an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus suspected to have killed at least 59 people in Guinea, with symptoms of the disease reported in neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia as well.
The spread of Ebola, one of the most lethal infectious diseases known, has spooked nations with weak health care systems. In Guinea's southeast, home to all the confirmed cases, residents are avoiding large gatherings and prices in some markets have spiked as transporters avoid the area.
Health authorities in Liberia said they had now recorded eight suspected cases of Ebola, mainly in people who crossed the border from Guinea. Five of these had died but tests were still being carried out to check if the cases were indeed Ebola.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said a total of 86 suspected cases, including 59 deaths, had been reported in southeastern Guinea near the border with Sierra Leone and Liberia. Laboratory tests have confirmed 13 cases of Ebola in Guinea so far, the first outbreak of the disease in West Africa.
"People are really frightened. They have seen people die in a matter of just two or three days. They are constantly worried who is going to be the next fatality," said Joseph Gbaka Sandounou, who manages operations for aid agency Plan International in Guekedou.
"People have never experienced anything like this before. Rumors are rife among communities who are trying to come up with their own explanations."
Samples taken from those who died in Liberia had been sent to Conakry for testing, according to the Geneva-based WHO.
In Guinea, authorities have taken steps to quarantine suspected cases in the districts of Guekedou, Macenta, Nzerekore and Kissidougou.
In Sierra Leone, authorities set up a task force after the death of a 14-year-old boy who had attended the funeral of a suspected Ebola victim. Authorities have yet to confirm if the boy died of the disease.
A Canadian who displayed Ebola-like symptoms after travelling to West Africa had tested negative, the WHO said.
Ebola was discovered in 1976 in then-Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo. Scientists have identified the outbreak in Guinea as the virulent Zaire strain of the virus.
Because people who fall sick with it tend to vomit, have diarrhea and suffer both internal and external bleeding, their bodies are often "covered in virus", explained Peter Piot, one of the co-discoverers of Ebola and now director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
This means anyone in close contact with them - such as nurses, doctors and carers - is at risk, he said.
The virus causes a raging fever, headaches, muscle pain, conjunctivitis and weakness, before moving into more severe phases of causing vomiting, diarrhea and hemorrhages.
In the southeastern Guinea town of Macenta, prices - especially for products like chlorine - have risen due to shortages, resident Mamady Drame said.
People have also started avoiding shaking hands. "Can you imagine that people are hesitant to even greet each other? That is a shocking symbol in our culture," Drame said.
In the distant capital, where there have not yet been any confirmed cases, some bank staff handling cash wore gloves and clients were encouraged to wash their hands before entering.
Esther Sterk, a tropical diseases specialist at medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, said that while dangerous, Ebola remains rare. Since its 1970s discovery, around 2,200 cases have been recorded. Of those, 1,500 were fatal.
The last major outbreak of the Zaire strain was in 2007, when 187 people died in Congo, a fatality rate of 74 percent.
Scientists are not clear how the virus - which also infects animals including bats, believed to be a major reservoir of the disease - crossed the continent from Sudan, Congo and Uganda.
With ethnic and family ties and trade making cross-border travel common in the region, the outbreak in Guinea is causing concern in nearby West African nations.
In Ivory Coast, a neighbor of Guinea's to the east, authorities said there were no suspected cases but they advised residents to avoid eating bushmeat - a carrier of the disease - and regularly wash their hands.
Mali said it was working with the WHO to put in place preventive measures, including stronger border control health checks, and a mechanism for coping with potential victims.
(Additional reporting by Umaru Fofana in Freetown, Kate Kelland in London and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by David Lewis and Bate Felix; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Janet Lawrence)