Freetown (AFP) — Millions of Sierra Leoneans emerged from their homes on Monday after a controversial nationwide lock-down 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 neighboring Liberia and Guinea this year.
“We have an overflow of bodies which we still need to bury but this has been an everyday occurrence since the Ebola outbreak… Now at least we have about 150 new cases,” Steven Gaojia, head of the country’s emergency operation center, said late Sunday.
The country’s chief medical officer earlier said up to 70 bodies had been uncovered, but these were in and around the capital, and results for the whole country are likely to push up the figures significantly.
Only essential workers such as health professionals were exempt from the shutdown, and some 30,000 volunteers who went door-to-door to hand out soap and give advice on halting the contagion.
– Begging for their lives –
Independent observers have voiced concerns over the quality of advice being given out, deeming the shutdown a “mixed success” and complaining about the poor training of the door-to-door education teams.
Meanwhile aid organizations and medical experts questioned the feasibility of reaching 1.5 million households in three days and argued that confining people to their homes could erode trust between the government and the people.
But Health Minister Abubakarr Fofanah told AFP volunteers had managed to reach around 80 percent of homes, deeming the action a success.
“We have learnt a lot from the campaign. Although this campaign has ended, there is a possibility we would have a similar one some other time,” he said.
“I cannot as of now give you statistics about the total corpses collected during the three-day period as we are now awaiting returns from other parts of the country and this will be made known as soon as the full report is compiled.”
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.
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.
The country said on Sunday there would be a four-fold increase in hospital beds to 1,000 for patients in the capital Monrovia by the end of October.
– ‘In denial’ –
“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.
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 U.S. troops arrived on Sunday at Liberia’s international airport, 55 kilometers (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 U.S. mission to train local health workers and establish additional medical facilities, he said.
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.”
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.
Catholic missionary Manuel Garcia Viejo, 69, the second Spanish national to be infected, was returned overnight in a military plane to Madrid from Sierra Leone, according to Spanish media.
In August, a 75-year-old Spanish priest was the first European to be repatriated after becoming infected.
AFP Photo/Zoom Dosso
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