Ebola-hit Sierra Leone's Freetown a city on edge

Ebola-hit Sierra Leone's Freetown a city on edge
Members of a UNICEF supported social mobilization team walk on a street carrying posters with information on the symptoms of Ebola virus disease (EVD) and the best practices to help prevent its spread in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in this August 2014 handout photo provided by UNICEF August 6, 2014.

FREETOWN - In the rain-lashed streets of Sierra Leone's capital, emaciated mongrels pick fights with feral pigs for scraps of food, unnoticed by the market traders and office workers passing by.

The 1.2 million inhabitants of Freetown were once wary of diseased street animals, but now it is each other that they fear.

The sprawling tropical city, on the Atlantic coastline of one of the world's poorest countries, is a day's drive from the epicentre of the most deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus in history.

"We are all scared because of the way Ebola is spreading but we are taking all the necessary precautions," says Waisu Gassama, 27, who works in the HIV department of the dilapidated, century-old Connaught Hospital, Freetown's main adult medical centre.

Gassama tells AFP the unit has stopped testing patients for HIV, such is the fear over the possibility that blood samples might contain Ebola.

Outside the hospital, soldiers say they have been drafted in to guard doctors and nurses, many of whom have been targeted by angry mobs blaming modern medicine for exacerbating the epidemic.

It is little wonder that Ebola can propagate panic quicker than it spreads death.

The virus is classified by the US Centers for Disease Control and Protection as a category A bioterrorism agent, along with anthrax, botulism and smallpox.

There is no cure, no established drug therapy and no vaccine to protect victims against the lethal haemorrhagic fever which the pathogen causes, breaking down vital organs until they seep out of the victim's lungs, skin and eyes.

Ebola has killed 1,013 people in the current outbreak, more than half of those it has infected, spreading from southern Guinea to Liberia, Sierra Leone and then Nigeria.

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