FREETOWN – Sierra Leone on Wednesday said health workers would go door-to-door as part of sweeping efforts to stem the spread of Ebola in the west of the country, which has also been hit by a ban on New Year revelries and travel restrictions.
President Ernest Bai Koroma led the charge in a nationwide radio address saying “travel and movements between districts will be restricted during the Christmas period” across the west African nation, which has seen the highest number of Ebola cases in the current epidemic.
Hundreds of health workers and volunteers meanwhile fanned out across the country’s west, where the capital Freetown is located, to begin the 15-day exercise officially dubbed the “Western Area Surge”.
“Christians attending church ceremonies on Christmas Day will be allowed to do so but are requested to return home immediately after the church services to celebrate Christmas with their families,” the president said.
Although 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.
“All New Year Eve festivities including church services and New Year day outings are prohibited,” Koroma said.
“Any church wishing to hold a service on New Year Eve should ensure that the service ends before 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, December 31st.”
Ebola has killed more than 6,800 people, almost all of them in west Africa. The three countries worst-hit by the epidemic are Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Sierra Leone overtook Liberia recently as the country with the highest number of Ebola infections.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he would leave on Wednesday to visit the Ebola-hit nations to take stock of international efforts to beat back the disease, following complaints the global community was too slow to respond to the crisis.
“I want to see the response for myself and show solidarity for those affected,” Ban told a news conference at UN headquarters.
In Sierra Leone, Koroma said more than 50 percent of new Ebola cases recorded over the past two weeks occurred in the western region.
“All public gatherings are prohibited including public activities around restaurants, nightclubs and beach areas,” Koroma said.
“Traders and market women are allowed to trade from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Mondays to Fridays and 6:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on Saturdays while trading on Sundays is suspended until further notice.”
‘Our country is at war’
He added that “violators will be subjected to the penalties stipulated by law”.
“Our country is at war with a vicious enemy that is taking the lives of our people,” he said.
Separately, the operation kicked off with groups of health workers visiting homes in the area with brochures on Ebola and detecting early signs of the disease.
Terence Smith, the head of a team visiting households in the mountain village of Regent overlooking Freetown, said he was “surprised by the enthusiasm with which people are talking freely and telling us whether they have sick people in their midst or not”.
International medical charity MSF (Medecins sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders) said the fight against Ebola had to be stepped up in Sierra Leone.
“As far as community mobilization is concerned it must be improved as people need to understand what Ebola is and how to avoid being infected. This would create a greater impact on the outbreak.”
A nightclub owner at the pristine Beach No. 2 near Freetown, rated among Africa’s best beaches, said the ban on New Year festivities was unjustified.
“If markets which are much more crowded can operate, why should we be singled out?” she said. “The government should have imposed a quota as to the number of people in any of our gatherings.”