By Tom Miles
GENEVA, Aug 1 (Reuters) - West Africa's Ebola outbreak is out of control but it can be stopped, World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan said on Friday.
"This outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it," Chan told the presidents of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast at a meeting in Guinea's capital Conakry.
"If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries," she said, according to a WHO transcript.
"This meeting must mark a turning point in the outbreak response," Chan added.
The outbreak is by far the largest in the forty-year history of the disease, with 729 deaths so far, including more than 60 healthcare workers, and 1,323 cases overall, she said.
Experience showed that the outbreak could be stopped and the general public was not at high risk of infection, but it would be "extremely unwise" to let the virus circulate widely over a long period of time, she said.
"Constant mutation and adaptation are the survival mechanisms of viruses and other microbes. We must not give this virus opportunities to deliver more surprises."
Chan said cultural practices such as traditional burials and deep-seated beliefs were a significant cause of the spread and a barrier to containment and needed to change.
People's assumption that isolation wards were "a sure death sentence" led them to care for loved ones at home or consult traditional healers, defeating attempts to contain the disease.
"Moreover, public attitudes can create a security threat to response teams when fear and misunderstanding turn to anger, hostility, or violence." (Editing by Robin Pomeroy)