By Bate Felix
DAKAR (Reuters) - Journalists will need official permission to cover many aspects of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, under new rules that the government said aimed at protecting patient privacy.
The move was announced on Thursday, the day an American cameraman working for NBC News in Liberia became the first foreign journalist to test positive for Ebola. There was no indication that the new rules were related to that case.
Growing international media interest in the outbreak that has killed nearly 2,000 people and infected 3,696 in Liberia has highlighted the challenges to the West African country's healthcare system.
Journalists could be arrested and prosecuted if they fail to get written permission from the health ministry before contacting Ebola patients, conducting interviews or filming or photographing healthcare facilities, officials said.
"We have noted with great concern that photographs have been taken in treatment centers while patients are going in to be attended by doctors. That is invasion of the dignity, privacy and respect of patients," Tolbert Nyenswah, assistant minister of health and head of Liberia's Ebola Incident Management System, said.
"Ebola patients are no different from any other patients. We should do that (report) under permission so that we don't just take pictures or send out stories of naked people (in a way) that does not respect their privacy," he said.
CUBAN MEDICS ARRIVE
The outbreak of the disease which causes fever, bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea has overwhelmed health systems in the three most affected countries, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea where it originated. It has also spread to Senegal, Nigeria and the United States.
The first person to be diagnosed with the disease in the United States could face prosecution in Liberia for making a false declaration on an airport questionnaire if he returns to the country, Liberian officials said on Thursday.
Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian, had helped a pregnant woman in Liberia who later died of Ebola, just days before he flew to Texas via Brussels and Washington two weeks ago. On an airport questionnaire meant to help control the spread of the disease he wrote that he had not had contact with an Ebola sufferer.
U.S. authorities said Duncan was in a serious condition and four of up to 100 people he had direct or indirect contact with, have been quarantined.
The World Health Organization has declared the epidemic an international public health emergency, and governments from the United States to China, Cuba and Britain have sent troops and medics in an attempt to contain the disease.
A first batch of 165 medical staff - 62 doctors and 103 nurses - from Cuba arrived in Sierra Leone on Thursday to join the fight against the disease after more than two weeks of training with international experts at a Havana hospital specializing in tropical diseases.
Another 296 Cuban doctors and nurses will go to Liberia and Guinea after their training.
"We have 165 medical officers, qualified health professionals that are here to help us in the fight against Ebola," said Sierra Leone's deputy Health Minister Madina Rahman. "As we know we need as much healthcare and professionals as possible. This will make a dent in the fight, we need more if we can get more," Rahman said.
(Additional reporting by Josephus Olu-Mammah in Freetown; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Peter Graff)