The Sierra Leone government has declared a five-day lockdown in the country's north to step up efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic, while making an exception for Christmas.

The lockdown is designed to intensify the containment of the Ebola virus, the government said on Wednesday.

"Muslims and Christians are not allowed to hold services in mosques and 
churches throughout the lockdown except for Christians on Christmas Day [Thursday]," Alie Kamara, resident minister for the Northern Region, told the AFP news agency.

"We are working to break the chain of transmission," he said.

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Deputy Communication Minister Theo Nicol said "the lockdown for five days... is meant for us to get an accurate picture of the situation," adding: "Other districts will carry on with their own individual lockdown after this if they deemed it necessary."

Ebola has killed more than 7,500 people, almost all of them in West Africa. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are the three countries worst-hit by the epidemic.

Sierra Leone overtook Liberia recently as the country with the highest number of Ebola infections.

Kamara said shops and markets would be closed throughout the period, and "no unauthorised vehicles or motorcycle taxis" would be allowed to circulate "except those officially assigned to Ebola-related assignments."

Among "key objectives" is to allow health workers to identify patients, 
Kamara said.

Technician monitored

The lockdown was announced as a laboratory technician at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US was being monitored on Wednesday for possible accidental exposure to the Ebola virus that came during an experiment, officials said.

The person working in a secure laboratory in Atlanta may have come into contact with a small amount of a live virus, CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said in an emailed statement.

The experimental material was on a sealed plate, but was not supposed to be moved into the lab in which the technician was working, Reynolds said.

The worker will be monitored for 21 days and the person's name has not been released.

News of the technician's possible exposure to Ebola comes days after Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, returned from West Africa, where Ebola has killed thousands.

Frieden said on Monday the response to the outbreak has improved significantly in recent months, but the virus continues to spread in the capitals of Liberia and Guinea.

Public health officials have said Ebola spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is infected with the virus. That puts health care workers and those in close quarters with infected people at higher risk of contracting the virus.

Source: Agencies