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Sierra Leone's Ebola shutdown uncovers 70 dead

21 September 2014, 16:30

Freetown - Sierra Leone wrapped up its 72-hour shutdown on Sunday, with authorities reporting that the action aimed at containing the Ebola epidemic had uncovered up to 70 dead bodies in and around the capital.

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

Almost 30,000 volunteers have been going door-to-door to educate locals and hand out soap, in an exercise that was expected to lead to scores more patients and bodies being discovered in homes.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Sarian Kamara revealed that 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.

Read also: Ebola lockdown brings Sierra Leone capital to a halt

"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."

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 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.

Publicity stunt

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".

Kamara said however that the shutdown was "on track" in its objective to get information to the entire population on how to prevent Ebola spreading.

"There has been a total compliance to the order for people to stay at home... which made it possible for campaign teams throughout the country to reach families in their own homes to sensitise them about Ebola," she said.

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

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

Read also: Sierra Leone launches controversial Ebola shutdown

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.

The spread of the virus made it "logistically difficult given the public health guidelines to manage" the Third India-Africa Forum Summit, a foreign ministry official said.

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

Brother Manuel Garcia Viejo, 69, director of a hospital in the Sierra Leonean town of Lunsar, is the second Spaniard to contract the virus in the current epidemic.

Still in denial

In Liberia, the hardest-hit country with more than 1,450 dead, health officials 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 the capital 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 Dewein district.

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

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