DAKAR, SENEGAL - Sierra Leone and Liberia are implementing dramatic new measures to try to contain a regional Ebola outbreak that has already killed hundreds.
The president of Sierra Leone has declared a national emergency and quarantined affected regions. Liberia is considering doing the same.
Since March, Ebola has killed at leat 729 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, including more than 50 new fatalities reported since last Friday, the World Health Organization reported. The WHO says the total number of cases in West Africa stands at 1,323.
Guinea has the largest number of Ebola-related deaths at 339, followed by Sierra Leone at 233 and Liberia at 156. The overall toll includes a man with U.S. and Liberian citizenship who died in Nigeria last week. Another man with U.S. and Liberian citizenship died in Nigeria last week soon after arriving on a flight that made stops in Ghana and Togo.
The WHO says Nigerian authorities have identified 59 people who may have come into contact with that man before he died.
This is the worst outbreak of Ebola since the disease was discovered in 1976, but the strategy for fighting it is the same: containment. That means isolating the sick and monitoring those who have had contact with anyone ill.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced new measures to combat what she said is the rapid spread of the disease in her country. She ordered all schools closed, without exception, and said quarantines were being considered for several communities.
"When these measures are instituted," she said, "only health care workers will be permitted to move in and out of those areas."
Sirleaf put all non-essential government employees on a 30-day mandatory leave and restricted travel for government officials.
In Sierra Leone, President Ernest Bai Koroma said he is quarantining areas where the disease is found, restricting public meetings and deploying security forces to quarantine the “epicenters” of the disease in the country's east. Police will enforce the screening of everyone going in or out, he said, and trained volunteers will track down people who have been exposed.
The measures will be in place for 60 to 90 days, Koroma said.
"Ebola is real," Koroma insisted in an address to the nation. "Ebola kills.”
Guinea has the largest number of Ebola-related deaths at 339, followed by Sierra Leone at 233 and Liberia at 156. Another man with U.S. and Liberian citizenship died in Nigeria last week soon after arriving on a flight that made stops in Ghana and Togo.
The WHO says Nigerian authorities have identified 59 people who may have come into contact with the man before he died.
Fear, superstition bring challenges
Health workers have met resistance from communities in Sierra Leone and the two other affected countries.
Fear, mistrust and superstition have made it difficult, and sometimes dangerous, for health workers. Meanwhile, the disease has spread to new communities.
Liberia and Sierra Leone have ordered police to protect health workers and facilities following attacks and incidents of sick people being forcibly removed from clinics.
In both countries, it is already against the law to harbor someone suspected of having Ebola.
Koroma announced he will go to Guinea Friday to meet with his Guinean and Liberian counterparts. He also canceled a trip next week to Washington, where President Barack Obama is hosting a summit of African leaders.
Peace Corps responds
Meanwhile, two U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in Liberia have been isolated after potential exposure to Ebola. A spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday the two “had contact with an individual who later died of the Ebola virus."
The organization is temporarily removing all of its volunteers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea as a precautionary measure.
Doctors Without Borders is among the medical groups trying to fight the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone. The group's Anja Wolz said it lacks the staffing to fully address "a difficult situation."
"We only have the possibility to work in the case management centers and we don't have the capacity to go outside," Wolz said. "I would say, we are on the top of an iceberg in the moment because the contact tracing is not really functioning. ... To find the patient as soon as possible and to refer them to the case management center, it's the basic for an Ebola outbreak."
Two of the main airlines servicing the region, Asky and Arik, have canceled flights in and out of Freetown and Monrovia after an infected Liberian man traveled by plane to Lagos last week and died there of the disease.
That incident put the international community on high alert, but the World Health Organization says the risk to travelers is low.
There is no vaccine or cure for Ebola, which can be fatal in up to 90 percent of cases. The disease is characterized by fever, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches, and unstoppable bleeding from areas such as the eyes, ears and nose.
The Ebola virus is transmitted through contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected person. Health officials are warning people to not touch Ebola patients and to avoid burial rituals that require handling the body of an Ebola fatality.