Criticism grows as Sierra Leone's Ebola shutdown enters final day

Criticism grows as Sierra Leone's Ebola shutdown enters final day

FREETOWN - Sierra Leone's 72-hour nationwide shutdown entered its final day on Sunday, as criticism grew that the extreme action aimed at containing the spread of the deadly Ebola virus was no more than a poorly planned publicity stunt.

Most of the west African country's six million people have been confined to their homes since midnight (0000 GMT) on Friday, with only essential workers such as health professionals and security forces exempt.

Almost 30,000 volunteers are going door-to-door to educate locals and hand out soap, in an exercise expected to lead to scores more patients and bodies being discovered in homes.

But independent observers have voiced concerns over the quality of advice being given out, deeming the shutdown a "mixed success" in the Western Area, the region that includes the capital Freetown.

"While the supervisors were well trained, the visiting teams to families in some parts in the Western Area had poor training and could not deliver the information properly," said Abubakarr Kamara, from the Health for All Coalition, a local charity.

"From my observation, many of them were too young to be involved in the exercise and in one or two households where I witnessed their intervention, there were hardly messages given to the families which were beneficial to the households."

Ebola fever can fell its victims within days, causing severe muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and - in some cases - unstoppable internal and external bleeding.

The outbreak has killed more than 2,600 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone this year, cutting a swathe through entire villages at the epicentre and prompting warnings over possible economic catastrophe from the World Bank.

The widespread fallout from the outbreak was underlined by India's decision Saturday to postpone plans for a summit in New Delhi to be attended by representatives of more than 50 African nations.

The spread of the virus made it "logistically difficult given the public health guidelines to manage" the Third India-Africa Forum Summit, said a foreign ministry official.

'Publicity stunt'

Joe Amon, health and human rights director at New York-based advocacy organisation Human Rights Watch, described the shutdown as "more of a publicity stunt than a health intervention".

"Publicity - or really crisis communication - is what is urgently needed in this epidemic, but it should focus on spreading information and building trust with the government. The shutdown is the wrong approach," he told AFP.

Steven Gaoja, head of the government's emergency Ebola operation centre, admitted the first day was "really very rocky" at the start, but said organisation had improved.

"On the whole we came out successful. We feel confident that the initial problems we encountered have been slashed," he said.

"We have a target to reach every household in the country and the goal is to ensure that families have the right information about Ebola," said ministry of health spokesman Sidi Yahya Tunis.

"We are certain we will reach the target so people have to be a little patient." Ghanaian fisherman Kwaku Adophy in Goderich, an affluent seaside suburb of 3,000 in the west end of Freetown, complained however that when the volunteers came, "nobody entered the compound but one member stood at the gate and shouted for us to come out and receive a bar of soap."

"No other information was given to us. We are very disappointed," he said.

But there was also praise.

Isatu Koroma, a resident of Hill Station some six kilometres (four miles) away, said however that a team had spent "a useful 30 minutes giving my family much needed information".

A spokesman for the World Health Organisation said on Friday a contingent of Cuban doctors and nurses from a 165-strong delegation expected in Sierra Leone would be arriving over the weekend.

From the first week of October, the Cuban team would remain for six months.

In Madrid, officials said a plane was being dispatched to fly a Catholic missionary infected with Ebola home from Sierra Leone.

Brother Manuel Garcia Viejo, 69, director of a hospital in the Sierra Leonean town of Lunsar, is the second Spaniard to contract the virus in the current epidemic.

Meanwhile, Democratic Republic of Congo authorities said a separate outbreak there has killed 40 people. They insisted however that the epidemic was "on the way to being contained".

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