Sierra Leone's three-day Ebola shutdown ends

  • AFP, Freetown
  • Updated: Sep 22, 2014 14:54 IST

Millions of Sierra Leoneans emerged from their homes on Monday after a three-day nationwide lockdown during which scores of dead bodies and new cases of Ebola infections were uncovered.

The west African country had confined its six million people to their homes for 72 hours in a bid to stem a deadly outbreak which has claimed more than 2,600 lives there and in neighbouring Liberia and Guinea this year.

Only essential workers such as health professionals were exempt, and some 30,000 volunteers who went door-to-door to hand out soap and give advice on halting the contagion.

Liberia also ramped up the battle against the epidemic, announcing Sunday a four-fold increase in hospital beds to 1,000 for patients in the capital Monrovia by the end of October.

Ebola fever can fell its victims within days, causing severe muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and -- in many cases -- unstoppable internal and external bleeding.

Fears of contagion have crippled the economies of affected nations, as wary workers stay home and cross border trade is disrupted.

Sierra Leone's deputy chief medical officer Sarian Kamara said that through the lockdown, "we were... able to confirm new cases which, had they not been discovered, would have greatly increased transmission."

"Up to this morning, we had 22 new cases. The response from the medical (teams) has improved and the burial teams were able to bury between 60 to 70 corpses over the past two days," she added.

US military mission

The scale of the challenge is most evident in Liberia, where health workers at Ebola units have spoken of turning away people begging for their lives because they don't have the beds or staff to treat them.

"Patients are being rejected... because there is no space. So the government is trying its best to finish the 1,000 beds so we can accommodate all the patients," Information Minister Lewis Brown told AFP.

The move comes two weeks after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the country, worst-hit in the outbreak with more than 1,450 deaths, was about to see a huge spike in infections, with thousands of new cases imminent.

"I am here since this morning, I was here yesterday and the day before, but they keep telling me to go and come back," Fatima Bonoh, 35, told AFP, shivering at the entrance of the Redemption hospital, an Ebola referral unit.

The WHO was due on Monday to publish the latest findings of its Ebola emergency committee charged with deciding on what other temporary measures should be taken to reduce the risk of the deadly virus spreading further.

A second deployment of US troops arrived on Sunday at Liberia's international airport, 55 kilometres (35 miles) east of Monrovia, as part of an eventual 3,000-strong mission to help tackle the outbreak.

The team will set up a headquarters for Major General Darryl Williams, who will oversee the US mission to train local health workers and establish additional medical facilities, he said.

Military engineers are due to build new Ebola treatment centres in affected areas, Washington said last week, while US officials will help recruit medical personnel to work at the units.

'In denial'

Liberian health officials said action to stop the spread of the disease was also being hampered by traditional communities still ignoring advice on staying away from highly infectious dead bodies.

"Some people are still in denial. Because of that they are not listening to the rules," said Gabriel Gorbee Logan , a health officer in Bomi County, northwest of Monrovia.

"And there is still ongoing burial rites -- rituals that citizens are carrying out. They're in the habit of bathing dead bodies because tradition demands it."

Meanwhile in Nigeria, thousands of students were preparing to return to school on Monday after an enforced summer break because of Ebola, which has claimed eight lives there.

The country's largest city Lagos however said primary and secondary schools in Lagos state would not reopen until October 8, to allow extra time to distribute hygiene and other preventive material to the schools.

A Catholic missionary infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone, the second Spanish national to be infected, was returned overnight in a military plane to Madrid, where he was hospitalised, according to Spanish media.

Manuel Garcia Viejo, 69, director and tropical medicine specialist at a hospital in the northern town of Lunsar is a member of the Hospitaller Order of St John of God, a Catholic order that runs the charity Juan Ciudad working with victims of Ebola. He worked in Africa for 30 years.

In August, a 75-year-old Spanish priest was the first European to be repatriate after becoming infected.

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