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Ebola Forces Unprecedented 3-Day Lockdown Of Six Million People

20/09/2014 19:51 BST | Updated 20/09/2014 21:59 BST

Striking pictures have captured deserted streets and markets as an entire nation was put under lockdown in an attempt to halt the march of the deadly Ebola virus.

Sierra Leone confined its population to their homes Friday for three days as the Ebola-ravaged West African country began what was believed to be the most sweeping lockdown against disease since the Middle Ages.

Some ran away from their homes and others clashed with health workers trying to bury dead victims as the country struggled through the second day of the unprecedented curfew.

Despite these setbacks, officials said most of Sierra Leone's 6 million people were complying with orders to stay at home as nearly 30,000 volunteers and health care workers fanned out across the country to distribute soap and information on how to prevent Ebola.

The virus, spread by contact with bodily fluids, has killed than 560 people in Sierra Leone and more than 2,600 in West Africa since the outbreak began last December, according to the World Health Organization. It is killing about half of the people it infects.

The streets of the capital, Freetown, were empty Saturday except for the four-person teams going door to door with kits bearing soap, cards listing Ebola symptoms, stickers to mark houses visited and a tally to record suspected cases.

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Ebola Lockdown

Among the volunteers was Idrissa Kargbo, a well-known marathoner who has qualified for races on three continents but whose training and career have been stymied by the outbreak.

Although early responses to the disease have been marred by suspicion of health workers, Freetown residents on Saturday seemed grateful for any information they could get, Kargbo told The Associated Press.

"Some people are still denying, but now when you go to almost any house they say, `Come inside, come and teach us what we need to do to prevent,'" Kargbo said. "Nobody is annoyed by us."

Sierra Leone's government is clearly hoping the lockdown will help turn the tide against the disease which the U.N. health agency estimates will take many months to eradicate in the country. In a speech before the lockdown, President Ernest Bai Koroma said "the survival and dignity of each and every Sierra Leonean" was at stake.

The strategy has drawn criticism, however. The charity group Doctors Without Borders warned it would be "extremely difficult for health workers to accurately identify cases through door-to-door screening."

Even if suspected cases are identified during the lockdown, the group said Sierra Leone doesn't have enough beds to treat them.

In a district 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Freetown, police were called in Saturday to help a burial team that came under attack by residents as they were trying to bury the bodies of five Ebola victims, Sgt. Edward Momoh Brima Lahai said.

A witness told state television the burial team initially had to abandon the five bodies in the street and flee. Lahai said later the burials were successfully completed after police reinforcements arrived. The bodies of Ebola victims are very contagious and must be buried by special teams.

In northern Sierra Leone, health worker Lamin Unisa Camara said Saturday he had received reports that some residents had run away from their homes to avoid being trapped inside during the lockdown.

"People were running from their houses to the bush. Without wasting time, I informed the chief in charge of the area," said Camara, who was working in the town of Kambia.

Several health care workers and volunteers complained that supply kits were delivered late, preventing their teams from starting on time.

But Kargbo, the marathoner, said his team was on track to meet its goal of visiting 60 households by the end of the lockdown Sunday. He said the effort would be worth it if the outbreak is shortened even a little.

Other Freetown residents, however, were having trouble making it through the three days.

"The fact is that we were not happy with the three days, but the president declared that we must sit home," said Abdul Koroma, the father of nine children in Freetown.

"I want to go and find (something) for my children eat, but I do not have the chance," he said.