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Sierra Leone lockdown will not help halt Ebola - MSF

FREETOWN/DAKAR (Reuters) - Sierra Leone’s proposed countrywide “lockdown” will not help control an Ebola outbreak and could lead to the disease spreading further as cases are concealed, medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Saturday.

The government will restrict residents to the areas around their homes for three days from Sept. 19 in a bid to halt new infections and help health workers track down people suffering from the disease, the information ministry said on Saturday.

“It has been our experience that lockdowns and quarantines do not help control Ebola as they end up driving people underground and jeopardising the trust between people and health providers,” MSF said.

“This leads to the concealment of potential cases and ends up spreading the disease further,” added the group, which has been helping fight the world’s biggest outbreak of the disease across West Africa.

An Ebola outbreak that was first identified in Guinea in March has since spread across much of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Cases have also been registered in Nigeria and Senegal and the World Health Organisation says more than 2,100 people have died.

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More than six months into the crisis, weak government health systems are still failing to get a grip on the disease, one of the deadliest on the planet.

The WHO says it will take $600 million and many months to bring Ebola under control and forecast as many as 20,000 cases.

Sierra Leone’s deputy information minister, Theo Nichol, said the three-day shutdown would make it easier for medical workers to trace suspected cases. The period may be extended if needed, he said. A presidency official had earlier said the lockdown would last for four days.

The planned lockdown drew mixed reactions on the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s seaside capital. Some welcomed moves to take action but many worried they might run out of supplies if confined to their homes for too long.

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“This will affect us greatly because we do not have the means to stock up on food for three days,” said Fatmata Koroma, a customer at Freetown’s Aberdeen market.

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Information Minister Alpha Kanu told residents to start preparing for the lockdown immediately and said the country’s dire situation meant that some rights and liberties had to be sacrificed for the good of the nation.

“We did it during the war....people found a way of surviving,” he said.

Although Sierra Leone has recorded significant economic growth in recent years since it started exporting iron ore, the country is still struggling to rebuild after tens of thousands of people died during a conflict during the 1990s.

The Ebola outbreak has swamped hospitals and killed doctors, highlighting how weak its healthcare systems remain.

MSF said door-to-door screening required a high level of expertise and, even when cases were found, there was a lack of treatment centres and other facilities to take them to.

MSF reiterated its calls for nations with civilian and military biological-disaster response capacities to send equipment and teams to West Africa.

“This remains our best hope of bringing this deadly outbreak under control as quickly as possible,” it said.

Additional reporting by Josephus Olu-Mammah in Freetown; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall