By Matthew Mpoke Bigg
MONROVIA, Dec 19 (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, starting a visit to Ebola-hit states in West Africa on Friday, urged their people to set aside traditional practices like washing the dead by hand so as to help end an epidemic that has killed nearly 7,000 people.
Ban said he hoped to use his two-day tour of the region - his first since the outbreak was detected in March - to raise the profile of the fight against the disease and to thank the thousands of health workers who have participated.
The virus, which causes vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding in its final stages, is spread by contact with the bodily fluids of the sick. It has no known cure and had never struck in West Africa before.
U.N. officials and health workers have said that many people in the worst affected countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have been slow to adapt their cultural practices. Many people have denied the existence of the disease or voiced anger at what they see as an attack on their beliefs and way of life.
"We would like to urge local communities that this is a temporary operation and we fully respect the cultural traditions but at this time it is important to abide by health protocols," Ban told Reuters onboard his flight to Liberia.
"Our goal is to see the last case identified and cured."
The death toll from the nine-month-old spread of the hemorrhagic fever rose to 6,915 as of Dec. 14, according to the World Health Organization.
Liberia, once the prime hotspot of the Ebola outbreak, has seen the number of new infections drop dramatically over the past month, with some health officials citing improved burial practices as a major factor.
"The promising results that Liberia has experienced must be shared regionally to avoid the risk of retransmission," Ban told journalists in Monrovia, the first leg of his tour. "We need more robust contact tracing. We need better preparedness at the district level."
The U.N. chief arrived later on Friday in Sierra Leone where infection rates are rising fastest, now accounting for more than half of the 18,603 total confirmed cases of the virus.
Infection is spreading rapidly around the coastal capital Freetown, where some aid workers say public information efforts have lagged. Sierra Leone launched "Operation Western Area Surge" this week to contain Ebola - with health workers passing street by street looking for the sick. (Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn and James Harding Giahyue; Editing by Joe Bavier and Mark Heinrich)