Authorities in Sierra Leone have imposed a two-week lockdown in the eastern district of Kono after health workers uncovered a surge of Ebola infections in the area where the epidemic was thought to be largely under control.
The worst outbreak of Ebola on record has killed 6,533 people in the three West African countries most hit by the disease – Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea – and infected 18,118 people, the World Health Organisation [WHO] said on Thursday.
Sierra Leone, with a shortage of treatment centres and trained staff, has overtaken Liberia as the worst affected nation, and until now, the recent spread was believed to be centred on western areas around the capital Freetown.
However, the WHO said on Wednesday that it had found bodies piled up at the only hospital in Kono, a district of about 350,000 people bordering Guinea.
Officials from the WHO, health ministry and US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered 87 bodies had been buried in 11 days.
Kono District Ebola Response Centre said it was placing the area on lockdown, allowing only essential vehicles in and out and introducing a night-time curfew.
AFP news agency reported that Sierra Leone announced on Friday that any public Christmas celebrations were banned, with plans to deploy soldiers on the streets during the festive period, in an effort to curb the spread of Ebola.
Sierra Leone’s government said last week that it was working with the United Nations in Kono and the International Federation of the Red Cross was setting up a treatment centre there. The remote area has only one ambulance to transport the sick and blood samples for testing.
But in Liberia, medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it was withdrawing from northern Lofa County, a former Ebola hotspot, after no new patients were recorded at its treatment centre in Foya since October 30, allowing the centre’s staff to be redeployed.
Ettore Mazzanti, MSF Project Coordinator in Foya, said efforts to contain the outbreak had been helped by explaining to local people how to avoid the virus, which has no known cure and is transmitted through the bodily fluids of sick people.
The Ebola response in Sierra Leone has been dogged by strikes by healthcare staff over pay and working conditions.
Despite government claims that it had reached a deal with junior doctors, Dr Jeredine George, president of the Junior Doctors’ Association, told the Reuters news agency that its members would strike for a fourth day on Thursday.
They are demanding a specialised Ebola treatment clinic for Sierra Leonean doctors, 10 of whom have died since the outbreak began. Deputy Health Minister Madinatu Rahman has said plans are underway to get such a clinic set up this month.
Winnie Romeril, a spokeswoman for the World Health Organisation, told Al Jazeera that people attending funerals are inadvertently spreading the virus.
Generally, most of the infections are being spread in two ways:
One is by attending unsafe burials – so when someone dies, the tradition here like many places, you come together as a family and there are some rituals – washing of the body, rituals with that water – which in the case of someone who died of Ebola is highly infectious.
The most dangerous time to be around someone who has died of Ebola or has Ebola – is at the moment of death or just before. So for people to come and to touch that person, and weep and brush away the tears, that’s when they introduce the Ebola into their body.
It’s introduced through the eyes or the nose or through the mouth when you wipe away a tear, for example. The funerals are a main transmitter of the Ebola infection.
And the second reason is if you’re caring for someone who’s very sick in your house it’s very easy to catch Ebola through the care of that person and in the handling the body fluids as you clean them up, as you would do for any person that we would care for – if you cared for a child or a sick person. That’s how the disease is spreading.