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By Tom Miles
GENEVA, Oct 16 (Reuters) - The World Health Organization will send experts to test the Ebola-preparedness measures in Ivory Coast and Mali, the two countries at greatest risk of being the next to be affected by the epidemic, WHO's health security response chief Isabelle Nuttall said on Thursday.
The virus is known to have killed almost 4,500 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea this year, and there have been isolated cases in the United States, Germany and Spain.
The WHO says there have been 9,000 recorded cases in West Africa and a similar number unrecorded, with a 70 percent fatality rate, implying a true death toll already above 12,000. The WHO expects 5,000-10,000 new cases a week by December.
The disease has gradually spread to areas that border Ivory Coast, whose population of about 20 million is roughly equal to the total of the three countries at the centre of the epidemic.
"As the number of cases is increasing, it wouldn't be a surprise to have a case in neighbouring countries. And it's for this very reason that we are working with them so that they are able to detect and take immediate action," Nuttall told a news conference in Geneva.
"Border checkpoints and health points have been implemented on the major roads that are crossing between countries, so it provides a level of reassurance in terms of travelling."
She did not have information about how the checkpoints were managed, who was manning them or how many there were.
The potential economic damage of a major outbreak in Ivory Coast would likely be felt around the world, since it and next-door Ghana produce about 60 percent of the world's cocoa beans.
European Union health ministers agreed on Thursday to try to improve the systems put in place by West African nations to screen departing passengers for Ebola, but disagreed on whether it was necessary to also check travellers on arrival in Europe.
The WHO does not recommend "entry screening" for Ebola. But Nuttall said it was understandable if countries wanted to put such measures in place and the WHO was preparing guidelines for such checks.
Mali and Ivory Coast are the top priorities on the WHO's list of 15 African countries that need to be prepared for an Ebola case, Nuttall said.
A team of around 10 experts will leave for Mali on Sunday and another will leave for Ivory Coast within days, she said, adding that Ivory Coast had already done a simulation exercise to test its response.
The teams would check all aspects to make WHO confident of an "adequate level of response" if a case occurred.
"The team will have every single component that needs to be checked upon: how to assemble a rapid response team, laboratory component, social mobilisation, infection prevention and control, checking at the border, all of the functions will be represented in the team."
The WHO is setting up rapid response teams in the countries at risk of Ebola contagion, who would immediately isolate any case, protect others and trace people who had had contact with the patient.
Ivory Coast has already opened an isolation centre at Bouaké University Hospital.
"It is possible to do it at the beginning of an outbreak, and this is the objective," she said.
Two countries in West Africa - Nigeria and Senegal - managed to contain the outbreak after it entered their territory. (Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
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