Abidjan (AFP) - Rumours that west Africa's deadly Ebola epidemic had reached Ivory Coast began a week ago, rapidly spread by late-night phone calls and prompting scared villagers to drink salted water.
"This is due to one gentleman's revelation," said Siamou Kobenan in the northern village of Kotouba. "He told us that the virus had come to the country and that we should take salt and drink it, and rub our bodies so the disease goes away."
Ivory Coast is officially free of the highly contagious and incurable haemorrhagic fever, which was detected in neighbouring Guinea in March and has claimed almost 1,500 lives there and in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
But superstition often prevails when it comes to prophecies. "If somebody is gifted with foresight, we can't not believe him," Kobenan, a farmer, told AFP.
"For the moment, we've had no Ebola problem in Kotouba," he added, seeking to justify the massive use of salt, which has caused a different epidemic among local people, hard-hit by diarrhoea.
The conviction that salt combats the virus, which was formally identified about four months after it first struck in Guinea, is no mere fad in a remote northern village.
- 'Eat onions against Ebola' -
Residents of the poorer parts of the sprawling economic capital Abidjan, located on the southern coast, have taken up the practice as well.
"Everybody is saying to drink salted water or even eat onions against Ebola," Abidjan trader Evariste Kouassi said, describing these notions as "madness" provoked by mass hysteria.
Health officials and the government have long been on the alert since the outbreak was identified in March on Guinean territory just 150 kilometres (95 miles) from the Ivorian border.
Last Friday, Abidjan closed its land borders with Guinea, where 407 people have died according to the UN World Health Organisation (WHO), and with Liberia, which has registered 624 deaths, including among patients in a district near the frontier.
In practice, the borders have unofficially been closed for several weeks, as Ivorian authorities scaled up their response to the viral epidemic that has claimed the lives of more than one in two patients -- as well as among health workers, according to the WHO.
Conversations about the frightening disease, which causes unstoppable bleeding and the collapse of vital organs in its agonising final stages, are rife in Abidjan.
Meanwhile, media outlets are suggesting preventative measures, which notably include avoiding any physical contact with the sick and feverish.
After banning the common practice of eating bush meat -- fruit bats are held to be a vector for the virus -- Abidjan suspended air flights to affected countries and banned all international sports events within the country.
- 'Times are serious' -
Ivory Coast had been due to host a qualifying soccer match in the Africa Cup of Nations against Sierra Leone in Abidjan on September 6, but today nobody knows where the game will take place.
Health authorities have urged citizens to "wash regularly and carefully with water and soap" and to "avoid shaking hands and slapping shoulders".
Offices in the Plateau business and administrative district of Abidjan have become adorned with large plastic containers of antiseptic gel.
The powerful Roman Catholic Church has come to the fore, urging congregations "not to play down the government's recommendations".
Artists are also concerned. Recently, about a dozen painters clad in traditional warrior costume and with their faces blackened by coal dust, occupied a stretch of Abidjan's main motorway, waving placards that read "Ebola Chiet". That meant "Ebola Stay Away" in the local street talk, "nouchi".
Israel Yoroba Guebo, a blogging journalist, in mid-August wrote what he called a "citizen's song" entitled "Stop Ebola", which has tallied 8,700 hits on the Internet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5vBEETGeQs) and incited a mobile phone operator to use the melody for a ringing tone.
"If we have reached such heights of distrust, then times are serious," said Guebo, who believes people are becoming panicky about Ebola in Ivory Coast.
Villagers at Gandopleu on the western border are "no longer prepared to take in (their) brothers from the neighbouring countries of Guinea and Liberia," said Dan Soumahoro, a local in his sixties who expressed "great fear" of this "filthy disease that makes you sweat blood".
- 'A virus invented by white men' -
But for all the warnings and information campaigns, diehards hold out against the evidence and seek wild explanations for the epidemic.
Academic Jules Evariste Toa said that in some rural communities, "people continue to eat bush meat and tell themselves that Ebola is a virus invented by white men to decimate the African population".
Some people believe that Ebola is already at large in Ivory Coast and accuse the government of hiding the victims, in an allegation evidently denied by public health authorities.
Despite border controls, it is very difficult to seal off a country whose frontiers have always been porous. A resident of the large northwestern city of Odienne, close to Guinea, said it costs 15,000 CFA francs (23 euros / 30 dollars) to be able to cross the border in secret.
Even by local standards of poverty, that is a relatively small sum to pay for a trip that could potentially infect Ivory Coast.
- Ivory Coast