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A medical worker in one of the Ebola epicentres, the district of Kailahun, in eastern Sierra Leone bordering Guinea. (Photo: European Commission DG ECHO)

Sierra Leone Ebola Lockdown Set to Begin, Despite Doubts

"It has been our experience that lockdowns and quarantines do not help control Ebola," international health organization says

Deirdre Fulton

Sierra Leone authorities on Thursday are slated to commence a three-day lockdown in a bid to combat the Ebola outbreak, the Guardian reports, despite warnings from medical experts that the drastic and unprecedented move could actually make the outbreak worse.

Residents of this country, which is one of the West African nations hardest hit by the deadly disease outbreak, will be forced to remain in their homes at least from Thursday at midnight until Sunday. The government has reportedly recruited 21,000 volunteers—many of them with little knowledge of public health—to go from house to house to identify infections and "raise awareness" about the disease. Numerous soldiers and police have already been deployed to enforce local quarantines in the country.

But the international health organization Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has criticized the lockdown. "It has been our experience that lockdowns and quarantines do not help control Ebola, as they end up driving people underground and jeopardizing the trust between people and health providers," said the group. "This leads to the concealment of potential cases and ends up spreading the disease further."

Infectious disease expert David Heymann, who was part of the team that first identified the virus near the Democratic Republic of Congo's Ebola river in 1976, told the Guardian: "What you don't want to do is actions that make the population lose more trust in you. Trying to cordon off an area isn't rational unless you can enforce it 100 percent. It's not dealing with the problem the way we know how to do it."

What's more, MSF added, "even when potential patients are identified, there will not be enough Ebola management centers to care for them. Without a place to take suspected cases—to screen and treat them—the approach cannot work."

The best hope for fighting the outbreak, MSF added, would be a full-scale international response, but that has been slow to arrive. In remarks delivered to the UN Tuesday, MSF president Joanne Liu said:

We need you on the ground. The window of opportunity to contain this outbreak is closing. We need more countries to stand up, we need greater deployment, and we need it now.  This robust response must be coordinated, organized and executed under clear chain of command.

Today, in Monrovia [Liberia], sick people are banging on the doors of MSF Ebola care centers, because they do not want to infect their families and they are desperate for a safe place in which to be isolated.

Tragically, our teams must turn them away.  We simply do not have enough capacity for them. Highly infectious people are forced to return home, only to infect others and continue the spread of this deadly virus.  All for a lack of international response.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expected on Thursday to address a Security Council meeting devoted to Ebola and call for to a new on-the-ground mission in West Africa to coordinate the struggle against Ebola.

According to the New York Times, "It was not immediately clear how an increased United Nations presence in the most afflicted countries—Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea—would give the organization more power to contain the crisis. But Mr. Ban said it would emphatically signal that places ravaged by Ebola are not pariahs to be shunned and avoided — a message he has sought to reinforce in his conversations with other world leaders."


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