FREETOWN (Reuters) - A team burying Ebola victims was attacked in Sierra Leone’s capital on Saturday, a member of parliament said, as a small group defied a three-day lockdown aimed at halting the worst outbreak of the disease on record.
In one of the most extreme measures since the epidemic began, Sierra Leone has ordered its population of 6 million to stay indoors as volunteers circulate to educate residents about the disease as well as isolate the sick and remove the dead.
Residents have mostly complied with the measures announced by President Ernest Bai Koroma earlier this week. On the second day of the lockdown, the streets were mostly deserted, except for ambulances and police vehicles.
The attack on the burial team on Saturday occurred in the village of Matainkay, some three miles from the Waterloo district of Freetown.
Claude Kamanda, MP for the Waterloo district, said that armed policemen accompanying the burial team quickly arrived, causing the attackers to flee.
The police Local Unit Commander in the area, Superintendent Mustapha Kamara said he sent reinforcement to the village “after some youths attempted to disrupt the burial”. He told Reuters that he has now instructed that the burial team must inform them to provide a stronger presence.
Ebola has infected at least 5,357 people in West Africa this year, mainly in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, killing 2,630 of those, according to the World Health Organization. More than 562 people have died in Sierra Leone.
Neighboring Liberia had put in place temporary community quarantine measures and curfews last month, but lifted them after street protests.
Some have criticized Sierra Leone’s lockdown measures, warning of food shortages and saying it might cause people to go to extra lengths to conceal highly contagious bodies.
But volunteers said they were bombarded with calls on an Ebola hotline over the last two days, receiving hundreds of requests for help.
Stephen Gaojia, head of an emergency services operation, said the ability of his teams to respond to the calls was limited by shortages of staffing and equipment.
“We need about 14 burial teams, as we speak we have about nine”, he said. “So if we have more number of people that will be able to improve our response time”.
The leader of the United Democratic Movement party, Mohamed Bangura, told Reuters that his team buried 11 Ebola victims on Saturday.
The outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever is the worst since it was identified in 1976 in the forests of central Africa. The first victim of the current epidemic is thought to have caught the disease from a fruit bat in the forests of Guinea last December.
Western nations, led by the United States, have pledged in recent days to ramp up their aid efforts, and the United Nations said it would begin deploying an advanced team of its special mission to a regional headquarters in Ghana by Monday.
A chartered 747 jet, carrying the largest single shipment of aid, including protective gear and medications, to the Ebola zone to date and coordinated by the Clinton Global Initiative and other U.S. aid organizations, departed New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Saturday afternoon bound for West Africa.
Former President Bill Clinton praised new efforts from the United States, Britain, France and other countries to fight the epidemic. “We’re still a little behind the curve but we’re getting there,” Clinton said on Saturday.
Volunteers and healthcare workers are often viewed with suspicion by locals who blame them for infecting the communities they are meant to be healing, slowing the ability of authorities to contain the disease.
Friday Kiyee, head of a Monrovia Ebola burial team, said that earlier this week locals placed a roadblock to prevent the collection of the decomposing body of a 29-year-old victim.
“Sometime we go into a community people will tell us they need an autopsy, and at the final stages you will see them blocking road. We don’t expect for our own brothers to behave this way,” she said.
Bans on Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone hosting any international football because of fears of spreading Ebola were kept in place by the Confederation of African Football, its executive committee decided on Saturday.
Additional reporting by James Harding in Monrovia, Michelle Nichols in New York, Caren Bohan in Washington; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Leslie Adler