Ebola outbreak: Sierra Leone ends three-day lockdown

At least 5,000 people have been infected with the deadly disease in West Africa since March. Sierra Leone is the first country to impose a nationwide curfew. 

Michael Duff/AP
Few people ventured out Sunday, during Sierra Leone's draconian three-day lockdown to prevent the spread of Ebola. Officials said they reached 80 percent of households during the lockdown to convey information about dealing with the epidemic.

After Sierra Leone’s three-day Ebola lockdown kept 6 million citizens indoors over the weekend, officials are hailing it a “huge success.”

During the curfew, 30,000 health workers, volunteers, and teachers went door-to-door to educate residents on the deadly disease. They documented 130 new cases of the virus, and identified an additional 39 suspected cases, reports Reuters.

Ebola has infected at least 5,000 people in West Africa since March. Some officials estimate the actual number of infections could be two or three times that number, however, as many people are suspicious of health officials and could be staying home instead of seeking medical care, as authorities have demanded.

Sierra Leone Health Minister Abubakarr Fofanah said volunteers were able to reach about 80 percent of the nation’s homes, reports Agence France-Presse. He said a similar lockdown could take place at “some other time,” and said a reduction of night burials – where families inter loved ones in secret – was one of the successes of the campaign. The swift burial of Ebola victims is considered key to containing its spread.

The end of the emergency lockdown was marked by singing and dancing in the streets of the capital of Freetown on Sunday night, reports The Independent.

Some international aid groups have questioned the effectiveness of mandatory home confinement. As the disease has spread, so has distrust for medical professionals and Western aid workers; some communities have been blocking medical access or attacking doctors. Some feared a lockdown would only exacerbate suspicion for medics.

The New York Times reported from Guinea earlier this summer that, “Health workers here say they are now battling two enemies: the unprecedented Ebola epidemic … and fear, which has produced growing hostility toward outside help.”

The challenges of educating populations about the disease and how it spreads – through direct contact with bodily fluids – are compounded by the shortage of trained volunteers and health professionals working in West Africa. The international community and local nations also face difficulty in agreeing on how to treat and curtail the spread of the virus.

Furthermore, the nations hardest hit – Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – already had a shortage of health workers prior to the outbreak. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

Liberia, for instance, had fewer than 200 doctors in the entire country when the epidemic began, and Reuters estimates that fewer than 50 are still working – many stopped working out of fear, while others left the country. Only a few died as a result of working with Ebola patients.

Even more significant, however, is the lack of knowledge about Ebola specifically. Because the disease had never been seen before in West Africa, health-care workers there initially struggled to identify, treat, and, most important, quarantine patients. Patients, meanwhile, have been skeptical of health-care workers telling them to abandon deeply rooted cultural practices in caring for the sick and washing the bodies of the dead.

But the most crucial difference between present and past outbreaks is the transnational character of the disease’s spread. That Guinean village where the virus was first identified sits in a porous border zone with Liberia and Sierra Leone, allowing the disease to be transmitted easily between people in the three countries.

“If people are able to cross borders then it doesn’t matter how hard one country works if the others don’t, too,” Kim Yi Dionne, a professor of African politics at Smith College, told the Monitor. “That’s a disincentive for anyone to do anything.” 

Sierra Leone isn’t the first country to attempt a lockdown, though its was the most extreme thus far. In August, neighboring Liberia quarantined the entire slum of West Point in the capital, Monrovia. The military-enforced barricade led to riots and was criticized for creating conditions ideal for the spread of Ebola. Food prices doubled and residents paid police bribes to sneak in and out of the impoverished community. The quarantine was lifted after 10 days amid international criticism.  

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