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Health workers take blood samples for Ebola virus testing at a screening tent in the local government hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tommy Trenchard(reuters_tickers)
DAKAR (Reuters) - The death toll from an Ebola outbreak in West Africa has risen to 603 since February, with at least 68 deaths reported from three countries in the region in the last week alone, the World Health Organisation said on Tuesday.
WHO said there were 85 new cases between July 8-12, highlighting continued high levels of transmission. International and local medics were struggling to get access to communities as many residents feared outsiders were spreading rather than fighting Ebola.
"It's very difficult for us to get into communities where there is hostility to outsiders," WHO spokesman Dan Epstein told a news briefing in Geneva. "We still face rumours, and suspicion and hostility. ... People are isolated, they're afraid, they're scared."
Sierra Leone recorded the highest number of deaths, which include confirmed, probable and suspect cases of Ebola, with 52. Liberia reported 13 and Guinea 3, according to the WHO figures.
Epstein said the main focus in the three countries is tracing people who have been exposed to people with Ebola and monitoring them for the 21 day incubation period to see if they were infected.
"It's probably going to be several months before we are able to get a grip on this epidemic," Epstein added.
The outbreak started in Guinea's remote southeast but has spread across the region's porous borders despite aid workers scrambling to help some of the world's weakest health systems tackle a deadly, infectious disease.
In Sierra Leone and Guinea, experts believe scores of patients are being hidden as relatives and friends believe hospitalisation is a "death sentence". In Liberia, health workers have been chased away by armed gangs.
(Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Bate Felix and Ralph Boulton)