Ebola outbreak: Sierra Leone lockdown not extended

A three-day lockdown in Sierra Leone aimed at stemming the worst Ebola epidemic on record will not be extended.

Rumours persisted in pockets of the city that poisoned soap was being distributed

A three-day lockdown in Sierra Leone aimed at stemming the worst Ebola epidemic on record has identified dozens of new infections, but will not be extended, despite not reaching everyone in the country.

In one of the most extreme strategies employed since the epidemic began, Sierra Leone ordered its six million residents to stay indoors until Sunday evening as volunteers circulated to educate households as well as isolate the sick and remove the dead.

"Even though the exercise has been a huge success so far, it has not been concluded in some metropolitan cities like Freetown and Kenema," Stephen Gaojia, head of the Emergency Operations Centre that leads the national Ebola response, told Reuters after meeting with President Ernest Bai Koroma.

Gaojia said 92 bodies had been recovered across the country by the end of Saturday, the second day of the lockdown.

Some 123 people had contacted authorities during the drive, believing they might be infected. Of these, 56 tested positive for Ebola, 31 tested negative and 36 were still awaiting their results, he said.

Food shortages

Frustrated residents complained of food shortages in some neighbourhoods of Sierra Leone's capital on Sunday.

While most residents welcomed teams of health care workers and volunteers bearing information about the disease, rumours persisted in pockets of the city that poisoned soap was being distributed, suggesting that public education campaigns had not been entirely successful.

Spread by contact with bodily fluids, Ebola has killed more than 560 people in Sierra Leone and more than 2,600 across West Africa in the biggest outbreak ever recorded, according to the World Health Organization. The disease, which has also touched Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal, is believed to have sickened more than 5,500 people.

Sierra Leone's government was hoping the lockdown — the most aggressive containment effort yet attempted — would turn the tide against the disease. 

Health care workers took advantage of the lockdown to bury 71 dead bodies by Sunday morning, Health Ministry official Dr. Sarian Kamara said on a radio program. The bodies of dead Ebola victims are highly contagious, making safe burials essential to stopping the spread of the disease.

Sundays are usually quiet for residents in Sierra Leone, who go to church or stay at home with many businesses and restaurants closed.

In the city centre, despite police efforts to encourage people to stay inside their homes, most families sat on their verandas chatting as radios blared through the streets. People have been urged to stay tuned to their radios and televisions for public information on the lockdown.

The National Power Authority has also provided uninterrupted electricity during the lockdown, so people haven't had to rely on generators.

Poison fears

In Bonga Town, a shantytown community near the national stadium in Freetown, some residents were upset that handouts of rice were distributed only to some families, said Samuel Turay, a 21-year-old volunteer.

The community often serves as a way station for rural Sierra Leoneans trying to relocate to the capital, and many homes are makeshift and dilapidated, with heavy rocks holding down zinc roofs so they don't blow away with the wind.

"They expected, when they saw us, that we were coming with food, but unfortunately we are just coming to talk to them. So they were not so happy about it," Turay said.

A health worker volunteer marks a home to identify that it has been visited, as they distribute bars of soap and information about Ebola in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Saturday. (Michael Duff/Associated Press)

The city's poorer residents generally use the money they earn each day to buy food, making planning for a three-day lockdown impossible, said Miatta Rogers, a mother living in the west of Freetown.

"Things are not going smooth right now. Everyone is not happy," she said. "When the government makes a ruling like this, then we all just have to abide by it, but it is not very easy."

The World Food Program provided food packages including rice, beans and a form of porridge throughout the lockdown, though its staffers were not going door to door and were instead focused on serving houses placed under quarantine by medical teams, spokesman Alexis Masciarelli said Sunday.

The agency distributed two weeks' worth of rations to 20,000 households in slum communities just prior to the lockdown, he said.

Some residents of Bonga Town and other similar communities said the provisions they received were insufficient, Turay said.

'She refused to take the soap'

Another volunteer, Kabarie Fofanah, said some families were refusing food outright out of fear it was poisoned. Both Turay and Fofanah said they encountered Freetown residents who feared the soap being distributed by outreach teams was poisoned and potentially lethal.

"There was this lady shouting saying we want to kill her, she is not interested in the soap," Fofanah said. "We tried our level best to talk to her but she refused to take the soap. She is afraid."

Other reports said some families were removing stickers indicating their homes had been visited, in hopes of receiving more soap.

Officials say residents have overwhelmingly complied by staying in their homes. Only one incident of violence has been reported, when health workers trying to bury five bodies in a district 20 kilometres east of Freetown were attacked on Saturday.

After police reinforcements arrived, the health workers were eventually able to complete the burial.

With files from Reuters