FREETOWN – Sierra Leone said Friday it was banning any public Christmas celebrations as the spiralling caseload of Ebola infections continues to spread alarm.
Soldiers are to be deployed throughout the festive period to force people venturing onto the streets back indoors, the government’s Ebola response unit said.
Palo Conteh, head of the department, told reporters in the capital Freetown there would be “no Christmas and New Year celebrations this year”.
“We will ensure that everybody remains at home to reflect on Ebola,” he said.
“Military personnel will be on the streets at Christmas and the New Year to stop any street celebrations,” he said, without saying which areas would be targeted.
While Islam is the dominant religion in Sierra Leone, more than a quarter of the population is Christian and public gatherings and entertainment are common during the holiday period.
Conteh did not give the exact dates of the crackdown or list any exceptions. During previous local and nationwide anti-Ebola curfews, people were allowed out to worship and for “essential business”.
Under current emergency regulations, bars and nightspots have already been shut down and public gatherings outlawed but there is no general ban on going outdoors or working.
Sierra Leone, which has overtaken Liberia to become the country worst affected by Ebola, has recorded 1,319 new infections in the last three weeks.
The death toll from the Ebola outbreak in the three worst-hit countries in West Africa reached 6,583 as of Dec. 10, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
Updated figures on the WHO website showed that 18,188 cases have been recorded in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – the three nations in the worst outbreak of the disease on record.
Sierra Leone reported 397 new cases during the week ending December 7 — three times as many as Liberia and Guinea combined, WHO said.
Sources with knowledge of government policy told AFP detailed instructions on the workings of the Christmas curfew would be announced shortly.
The country now counts a total of 7,897 Ebola cases, including 1,768 deaths, according to Wednesday’s tally.
A full third of the new cases, or 133 of them, were reported in Freetown, at the heart of the ongoing surge in cases seen in the west of the country.
Sierra Leone has already quarantined around half its population of six million, sealing off districts across the country in a bid to combat the Ebola outbreak.
The government imposed a two-week lockdown on the eastern diamond mining district of Kono on Wednesday after eight cases of Ebola were confirmed in one day.
Authorities imposed the lockdown after health workers uncovered a surge of Ebola infections in the area where the epidemic was thought to be largely under control.
Sierra Leone, with a shortage of treatment centers and trained staff, has overtaken Liberia as the worst affected nation, and until now, the recent spread was believed to be centered on western areas around the capital Freetown.
Kono District Ebola Response Center said it was placing the area on lockdown, allowing only essential vehicles in and out and introducing a night-time curfew.
Sierra Leone’s government said on Wednesday it was working with the United Nations in Kono and the International Federation of the Red Cross was setting up a treatment center there. The remote area has only one ambulance to transport the sick and blood samples for testing.
‘At their wits’ end’
The WHO’s national Ebola coordinator Olu Olushayo said doctors and nurses were “at their wits’ end.”
In the space of 11 days, two WHO teams buried 87 victims, including a nurse and an ambulance driver enlisted to help dispose of corpses piling up in the local hospital, the agency said.
The government reacted with surprise to the WHO’s claims, however, saying Friday they did not tally with reports from the ground and announcing that investigators had been sent to assess the situation in Kono.
Local media said officials at the district’s main public hospital in Koidu had also been taken aback by the reports.
Aiah Beyonquee, the leader of the local burial team, told the state-run Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation no bodies had been stacked at the hospital.
“On Wednesday we had about 10 alert calls for death cases in the community which we reacted to,” he told the broadcaster.
“There were also five deaths in the hospital and all these were buried the same day.”
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 center in Foya since Oct. 30, allowing the center’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.
Scientists are racing to develop Ebola vaccines.
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 Reuters that its members would strike for a fourth day on Thursday.
They are demanding a specialized 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. With a report from Umaru Fofana, Reuters