Canada on Friday joined a list of countries warning about the Ebola virus and travel to West Africa, while the head of the World Health Organization issued a dire warning, saying the outbreak in the region “can be catastrophic” if the virus is not contained.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is warning people to avoid all non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where officials are battling an outbreak that has killed more than 700 people since February.

“Travellers could face difficulties accessing health-care services from an increasingly burdened health-care system. Travellers could also be exposed to the Ebola virus when seeking medical care in a health-care setting.” the statement said.

“Canada is not alone in making this recommendation; several other countries are also recommending against non-essential travel to the affected countries,” the agency also said.

Canada's health minister reiterated the travel warning Friday, "to protect Canadian travellers and allow health officials in the affected countries to focus their resources on responding to this tragic outbreak." 

However, the federal government did remind Canadians that risk remains low.

“There are no confirmed cases of Ebola in Canada," said Health Minister Rona Ambrose. "The Ebola virus itself does not spread easily from person to person. It is not like the flu. All points of entry into Canada are routinely monitored and travellers showing symptoms would be referred to quarantine officers, who have the authority to implement public health measures under the Quarantine Act." 

60% mortality rate

Meanwhile, the director general of the World Health Organization urged vigilance in the battle to contain the outbreak.

"We must not give this virus opportunities to deliver more surprises,” Dr. Margaret Chan told a meeting in Conakry, the capital of Guinea.

Experts estimate that in this outbreak about 60 per cent of the people who have gotten sick with Ebola have died. The fatality rate is among the highest of any disease. There is no vaccine and no specific treatment.

"Constant mutation and adaptation are the survival mechanisms of viruses and other microbes," Chan said. "If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives, but also severe socio-economic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.”

Chan emphasized Friday that the general public "is not at high risk of infection," but also said the Ebola virus should not be allowed to circulate widely.

The World Health Organization has not issued a similar travel warning for the West Africa region, but several countries including the United States have.

With files from The Associated Press