November 12, 2014 / 1:35 PM / in 4 years

Health workers strike at southern Sierra Leone's only Ebola clinic

FREETOWN (Reuters) - More than 400 health workers at one of Sierra Leone’s few Ebola treatment centers went on strike on Wednesday over unpaid risk allowances the government is meant to fund, officials said, although some of them returned to work later in the day.

A health worker fixes another health worker's protective suit in the Aberdeen district of Freetown, Sierra Leone, October 14, 2014. REUTERS/Josephus Olu-Mammah

The clinic in Bandajuma in Bo district has about 60 beds for Ebola patients - about a fifth of Sierra Leone’s total Ebola beds - and U.N. officials warn that the number of Ebola cases is surging in Sierra Leone due to a lack of treatment centers.

A representative for the striking healthcare workers said that about a quarter of them returned to work later on Wednesday to the only Ebola clinic in south Sierra Leone after health officials pledged to pay the allowance later this week.

He said the allowances had not been paid since September.

“We decided to allow one quarter of our workforce to return to the center to work to support people who are admitted there,” said Mohamed Mbawah. A full-scale strike would resume if the payments were not made by Friday, he said.

Earlier in the day an ambulance was turned away with a patient because of the walkout.

The basic salaries of staff at Bandajuma are paid by medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which runs the clinic.

The government of the West African state was not immediately available for comment. MSF said in a statement that the cause of the strike had been “resolved”.

Earlier in the day, Ewald Stars, emergency coordinator for MSF, called on the government to pay the staff. “If the strike action continues we will shut down the treatment center,” Stars said.

Sierra Leone is one of the three nations in West Africa worst affected by Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever that has killed more than 5,000 people since it was identified in Guinea in March. Some 421 new infections were reported in Sierra Leone in the week to Nov. 9, especially in the west and north, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond expressed cautious optimism during a visit to Freetown on Wednesday that Sierra Leone and its partners had found “the right solution” to halt the spread of the disease.

Liberia, the hardest hit by Ebola, has seen a reduction in the number of new cases. However, the U.N. Ebola response mission, UNMEER, warned last week that Sierra Leone has just 288 of the 1,864 beds it needs to fight the disease.

Reporting by Umaru Fofana; Writing by David Lewis and Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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