Police in the Liberian capital fired live rounds and tear gas on Wednesday to disperse a stone-throwing crowd trying to break an Ebola quarantine imposed on their neighbourhood, as the death toll from the epidemic in West Africa hit 1,350.
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In the sprawling oceanfront West Point neighbourhood of Monrovia, at least four people were injured in clashes with security forces, witnesses said. It was unclear whether anyone was wounded by the gunfire, though a Reuters photographer saw a young boy with his leg largely severed just above the ankle.
Liberian authorities introduced a nationwide curfew on Tuesday and put the West Point neighbourhood under quarantine to curb the spread of the disease.
"The soldiers are using live rounds," said army spokesman Dessaline Allison, adding: "The soldiers applied the rules of engagement. They did not fire on peaceful citizens. There will be medical reports if [an injury] was from bullet wounds."
The World Health Organization said that the countries hit by the worst ever outbreak of the deadly virus were beginning to suffer shortages of fuel, food and basic supplies after shipping companies and airlines suspended services to the region.
The epidemic of the hemorrhagic fever, which can kill up to 90 percent of those it infects, is ravaging the three small West African states of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. It also has a toehold in Nigeria, Africa's biggest economy and most populous country.
West Point, a densely populated slum surrounded by floating sewage that occupies a kilometre long peninsula in Liberia's seaside capital, suffers from government neglect even in the best of times, and mistrust of authorities is rampant. Open defecation is a major problem. Drinking water is carted in on wheelbarrows, and people depend on a local market for their food.
Now many of the market's traders are stuck inside, prices have doubled and "the community is in disarray," slum resident Richard Kieh said.
"Why are you ill-treating people like this? How can we take this kind of government to be peaceful? It is not fair — We are human," complained another resident, Mohamed Fahnbulleh.
Ebola is only spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick people experiencing symptoms. Those at greatest risk are doctors and nurses and people who handle the dead. Still, victims often suffer gruesome deaths, bleeding from the eyes, mouth and ears, and the fatality rate of about 50 per cent has provoked widespread panic.
West Point has been a flash point. Days earlier, residents ransacked a screening centre where people in contact with Ebola victims were being monitored. They dragged out sheets and mattresses covered with blood and feces, accusing the government of bringing sick people into their neighbourhood. Dozens of potential carriers were taken elsewhere in the city.
Blockade tactic provoking many questions
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf responded by imposing a nighttime curfew and ordering "quarantines" of West Point and Dolo Town, another densely populated slum outside the capital. She also ordered movie theatres, nightclubs and other gathering places shut, stopped ferry service to the peninsula and deployed a coast guard boat to patrol the surrounding waters.
"There will be no movements in and out of those areas," Sirleaf said in a national address late Tuesday night. "Additional sanctions" were necessary because her citizens failed to heed health warnings, she said.
"We have been unable to control the spread due to continued denials, cultural burying practices, disregard for the advice of health workers and disrespect for the warnings by the government," she said. "Fellow citizens, these measures are meant to save lives ... May God bless us all and save the State."
She didn't say how long the blockades would last, or how people trapped inside would get food, water or other help meanwhile.
Police moved in hours after her speech, sealing off the peninsula.
Angry crowds massed, and became violent when a local government representative returned to her home in West Point to get her family out. Hundreds surrounded her house until security forces packed the family into a car, firing into the air and hustling them away.
Deputy Police Chief Abraham Kromah said forces later restored order. "Please remain law-abiding; throwing stones at police officers and security officers is not the best way out," he said in a telephone interview.
The outbreak is social problem as well as a public health crisis, the WHO director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, wrote in Wednesday's New England Journal of Medicine. "Fear remains the most difficult barrier to overcome," with people hiding family members suspected of being infected, and people fleeing treatment centres and falling prey to "witchcraft or miracle cures."
Hope in Nigeria
Whole counties and districts have been sealed off in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and Guinea imposed some internal travel restrictions, but the barricading of Liberia's urban slums are a first.
Some areas already are "beginning to experience supply shortages, including fuel, food, and basic supplies" as airlines and shipping companies curtail services to the affected countries, the agency said. "WHO is working with the UN World Food Program to ensure adequate food and supplies, but calls on companies to make business decisions based on scientific evidence."
A closer look at the numbers shows that with 2,473 people sickened in four countries, the current outbreak is bigger than the combined caseloads all previous Ebola outbreaks, which totaled 2,387. The current outbreak's death toll, however, is still 240 fewer than the total deaths from the previous two-dozen outbreaks, the agency's data show.
The virus is spreading fastest in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but the UN health agency reported encouraging signs that it is slowing in Guinea, and there is hope that Nigeria has managed to contain the disease to about a dozen cases.
Nigeria's health minister, Onyebuchi Chukwu, said Tuesday that a fifth person had died of Ebola, but all of Nigeria's reported cases have been people in direct contact with a Liberian-American man who arrived already infected.