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Overwhelmed west Africa escalates Ebola response

West Africa intensified its response to the deadly Ebola epidemic on Sunday, with Sierra Leone uncovering scores of dead bodies during a 72-hour shutdown and Liberia announcing 1,000 hospital beds.

world Updated: Sep 21, 2014 21:33 IST
Ebola epidemic,Sierra Leone,Liberia

West Africa intensified its response to the deadly Ebola epidemic on Sunday, with Sierra Leone uncovering scores of dead bodies during a 72-hour shutdown and Liberia announcing 1,000 hospital beds.

The outbreak has killed more than 2,600 people in the countries and neighbouring Guinea this year, cutting a swathe through entire villages at the epicentre and prompting warnings over possible economic catastrophe.

Most of Sierra Leone's six million people were confined to their homes for a third straight day Sunday, with only essential workers such as health professionals and security forces exempt.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Sarian Kamara said the authorities had received thousands of calls but only a handful of new patients in the Western Area covering Freetown and its surroundings.

"We were... able to confirm new cases which, had they not been discovered, would have greatly increased transmission," she said.

"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."

Liberia announced plans Sunday for an increase in beds for Ebola patients in its overwhelmed capital Monrovia, raising the number from around 250 to 1,000 by the end of October.

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.

"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 announcement came ahead of the opening of a 150-bed unit, the largest government facility in the country, on Sunday in Monrovia's western suburb of Duala.

'Publicity stunt'
The latest WHO figures show Liberia reporting 2,710 cases, but they were given a week ago, and the government's two Ebola units in Monrovia say they have been deluged by patients in recent days.

"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 on Sunday, shivering at the entrance of the Redemption hospital, an Ebola referral unit.

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

The widespread fallout from the outbreak was underlined by India's decision Saturday to postpone plans for a summit in New Delhi to be attended by representatives of more than 50 African nations.

In Madrid, officials said a plane was being dispatched to fly a Catholic missionary infected with Ebola home from Sierra Leone.

Independent observers in Freetown have voiced concerns over the quality of advice being given out during the country's shutdown, complaining of poor training of 30,000 volunteers giving out soap and advice.

Aid organisations and medical experts have questioned the feasibility of reaching 1.5 million homes in three days and have argued that confining people to their homes could erode trust between the government and the people.

Joe Amon, health and human rights director at New York-based advocacy organisation Human Rights Watch, described the shutdown as "more of a publicity stunt than a health intervention".

The government has said however that the campaign is "on track" in its objective to educate the entire population on how to prevent Ebola spreading.

'Still in denial'
Health officials in Liberia said action to halt the spread of the disease was 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 carry out. They're in the habit of bathing dead bodies because tradition demands.

"Religion demands that they need to bathe these dead bodies before calling the health team, and by the time we get there, a couple of people have gotten into contact."

Health authorities have placed tribal and religious leaders at the centre of awareness campaigns, giving them the lead in advising their communities on preventing Ebola's spread.

"The people trained us not to bathe bodies, not to play with vomit and not to eat bush meat," said Boakai Sanoe, the imam of a mosque in Bomi's Dewein district.

"And that's the same thing we're telling our people in the environment -- to avoid all of those things."

First Published: Sep 21, 2014 21:28 IST