Health workers in Guinea. Photo: AFP
Health workers in Guinea. Photo: AFP

Ebola rages in Sierra Leone as UN set to miss goals for curbing cases

Only 23% of cases are being isolated in Liberia, and 40% in Sierra Leone, short of a goal set in October to isolate seven-in-ten cases by Monday

Geneva/London: The United Nations (UN) has probably missed targets it set for curbing West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, as new infections surge in Sierra Leone.

Only 23% of cases are being isolated in Liberia, and 40% in Sierra Leone, short of a goal set in October to isolate seven-in-ten cases by Monday. Neither country has enough burial teams to achieve a target of safely burying 70% of Ebola-related deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Still, unreliable data make it difficult to know conclusively whether the goals have been met, Geneva-based WHO said.

While new infections are declining in Liberia and stable in Guinea, they’re rising in Sierra Leone, particularly in the country’s north and west, including the capital Freetown, according to WHO. Burial rites in which mourners touch the corpse of a dead person are continuing to contribute to the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Alpha Kanu, the nation’s information minister, said in a 27 November briefing.

“Getting your people who for centuries have been steeped in those cultural practices to abandon those practices overnight is one of the challenges we have been facing," Kanu said. “The culture of continuing with traditional practices is still very much a challenge. It’s a very touchy-feely African culture."

Worst outbreak

The outbreak began on 6 December 2013 in the remote Guinean village of Meliandou, where a two-year-old boy, Emile Ouamouno died. It’s since raced through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, infecting 16,000 people and killing 5,689, making it the worst Ebola outbreak on record. Cases have also been reported in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, the US and Spain.

The epidemic may wipe as much as $33 billion from the region’s economy in a worst-case scenario, according to the World Bank, which is mobilizing $1 billion for the response.

More than 1,300 people have been infected in Sierra Leone in the past three weeks, and the country’s total number of infections will soon eclipse those in Liberia, the worst-affected country, according to WHO.

Doctors Without Borders is building a new treatment centre in Freetown that will open within the next 2 weeks, according to Francien Huizing, a spokeswoman for the medical charity in the Sierra Leonean capital.

In Liberia, only 67 cases were reported in the week to 23 November, and the northern district of Lofa has reported no cases for four weeks, the WHO said. Successful community outreach programmes to educate people at risk and get them to adopt new burial practices have helped to curb infections in Liberia, said Dorian Job, deputy emergency programme manager for Doctors Without Borders in Geneva.

The charity’s 240-bed ELWA3 treatment center in Monrovia only had 23 patients as of 17 November. Still, in some areas community outreach teams still lack fuel for their cars, preventing them from getting to remote communities, Job said.

“In general, Liberia is better supplied and has more resources than other countries," he said. “What is important is that we don’t relax the effort. It’s not over." Bloomberg