Sierra Leone restricted travel on Thursday in three more “hotspots” of Ebola where 1.5 million people live, meaning that more than a third of the country’s population is now isolated.
Sierra Leone is one of the hardest hit countries in the Ebola outbreak sweeping West Africa that is believed to have killed more than 2,900 people, according to World Health Organisation tolls published on Thursday. The agency says the situation in Sierra Leone continues to deteriorate, driven primarily by a sharp increase of cases in the capital, Freetown.
In an address to the nation on Wednesday night, President Ernest Bai Koroma put Port Loko, Bombali, and Moyamba districts under isolation, meaning only people delivering essential services can enter and circulate within these areas. The WHO also noted that these districts were seeing a rise in cases.
In other parts of Sierra Leone, including the capital, homes will be put under quarantine when cases are identified, a government statement after the address said.
The Ebola outbreak, the largest ever, has also hit Liberia and Guinea and is believed to have sickened more than 6,200 people. An Ebola patient also slipped into Senegal from Guinea but the disease does not appear to have spread there. Nigeria has linked 20 cases to the disease and eight deaths after a man infected with Ebola travelled there from Liberia; the outbreak seems to have been contained in Nigeria as well.
“Nigeria is free of the virus now but we know that to be permanently free from it, we must remain vigilant and work with WHO and the international community to eradicate it completely from our sub-region and forestall the possibility of its re-emergence on our shores through migration,” Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said on Wednesday night.
The Ebola outbreak’s unprecedented scale and geographic spread have pushed governments to impose severe measures, like the cordoning off of entire towns or regions. Last week, Sierra Leone imposed a three-day nationwide lockdown, confining its 6 million people to their homes while health teams spread out to look for the sick and educate people about the disease.
That exercise revealed that the outbreak is worse than thought, the government said, with 160 Ebola cases found during the shutdown.
“There is a desperate need to step up our response to this dreaded disease,” the Sierra Leone government statement said. “The prognosis is that without additional interventions or changes in community behaviour, the numbers will increase exponentially and the situation will rapidly deteriorate.”
Two districts near the outbreak’s epicentre Kenema and Kailahun had already been isolated. Liberia, the country hardest-hit by the disease, cordoned off areas of its capital at one point to slow transmission.
The outbreak has overwhelmed the weak health systems of some of the world’s poorest countries — There aren’t enough doctors and nurses or even clinics to treat the spiralling number of cases. The five countries have about 900 beds that can be used to treat Ebola patients, and more than 700 more are on their way.
But the WHO warned Thursday that will still leave a shortfall of more than 2,100 beds. Liberia alone needs 1,500 more than that are currently being set up.
The lack of capacity at labs that perform the tests for Ebola is also hindering experts’ ability to track the outbreak. The tolls released on Thursday, for instance, showed no new confirmed cases of Ebola in the Liberian capital of Monrovia in the last week for which data was available. The WHO said that flies in the face of reports on the ground and said that it likely merely represents testing delays.