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Sierra Leone starts nationwide lockdown to stop spread of Ebola

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Officials dressed to avoid Ebola. From Getty Images.

(CNN) — Sierra Leone started a three-day nationwide lockdown Friday in an effort to halt an Ebola outbreak that has left thousands dead in the region.

Under the plan, no one is allowed to leave their homes for three days, allowing volunteers to go door-to-door educating people on the deadly virus.

Muslims should pray at home Friday while Christians do the same on Sunday, officials said.

“We believe this is the best way for now to identify those who are sick and remove them from those who are well,” said Alhaji Alpha Kanu, the nation’s minister of information.

But aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders, said the lockdown is unlikely to stop the spread of the disease.

“Forced quarantines and lockdowns are driving people underground and jeopardizing the trust between people and health providers,” the charity group said in a statement this month. “This is leading to the concealment of cases and is pushing the sick away from health systems.”

Dr. David Nabarro, who is leading the United Nations effort to fight Ebola, said the description of the situation as a “lockdown” was missing the point of the strategy.

“Unfortunately, it was described as a lockdown, I think, by accident in the first description and that term has stayed there,” Nabarro said. “But it’s actually not a lockdown. It’s a sensitization, house-to-house as they call it, which is used quite often for other issues.”

He said he talked to the President of Sierra Leone, who explained his strategy to him.

“He wants communities throughout the country to have a better understanding of the disease, to understand its causes, and also to understand how it’s transmitted so they can start to take ownership and take action themselves to reduce the spread and also to insure when people are infected or suspected of infection that they can be taken to places where they can receive care.”

It’s not the first time a quarantine or lockdown has been enforced. In August, Liberia locked down one of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital of Monrovia in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. Riots ensued.

The deadliest Ebola outbreak in history has killed at least 2,600 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — the countries most affected by the virus — since the first case was documented in December.

Training volunteers

Sierra Leone set the dates for the lockdown earlier this month to give officials time to train volunteers and get needed equipment.

During the lockdown, about 30,000 volunteers will talk to people across the nation about how to protect themselves and identify Ebola cases,officials said.

The information minister described the volunteers as young people who are trained health workers, medical students and nurses.

“Resistance will be less. They will be talking to people they know,” he said.

He did not say what punishment, if any, people would face if they violate the lockdown.

But MSF, which is working with patients in the nation, said this will not be an easy task.

“It will be extremely difficult for health workers to accurately identify cases through door-to-door screenings as this requires a certain level of expertise,” the group said. “And when cases are identified, there will not be enough Ebola management centers to care for them.”

In a related incident, youth around Matainkay in Waterloo, 18 miles outside Freetown, attempted to disrupt the burial of corpses of Ebola victims, according to the local member of Parliament for the area, Claude Kamanda, and the police local unit commander, Mustapha Kamara.

The police chief said he sent troop reinforcements to ward off the attackers. He described them as youths in the village.

Number of cases on the rise

As the number of new cases escalates, there’s a question of what a lockdown will do to slow the spread of the virus, given that the Ebola incubation period can range between two and 21 days.

The virus is spread through contact with bodily fluids, and early symptoms include sudden onset of fever, weakness, muscle pain, headaches and a sore throat.

The outbreak has been centered in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, with a handful of cases in Nigeria. The overall fatality rate is 50%, WHO said.

The virus is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), where one of the first outbreaks occurred in 1976.

CNN’s Poppy Harlow and Margot Haddad contributed to this report.

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