FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leoneans on Sunday celebrated the end of a three-day lockdown aimed at stemming the world’s worst ever Ebola epidemic, as authorities claimed the controversial operation had identified dozens of new infections and located scores of bodies.
In the most extreme strategy employed by a nation since the epidemic began, Sierra Leone ordered its 6 million residents to stay indoors as volunteers circulated to educate households as well as isolate the sick and remove the dead.
In the early evening, even before the lockdown officially ended at midnight, residents in some parts of the capital Freetown emerged onto the streets to sing and dance. Police in the western part of the city said they had made a number of arrests in an attempt to enforce the measure in its final hours.
Earlier in the day, Stephen Gaojia, head of the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) that leads the national Ebola response, said a few areas had still not been reached by the government’s teams
“Even though the exercise has been a huge success so far, it has not been concluded in some metropolitan cities like Freetown and Kenema,” he told Reuters.
Gaojia said 92 bodies had been recovered across the country by the end of Saturday, the second day of the lockdown.
Some 123 people had contacted authorities during the drive, believing they might be infected. Of these, 56 tested positive for Ebola, 31 tested negative and 36 were still awaiting their results, he said.
The EOC announced in the evening that it would not extend the campaign in order to reach the remaining households as it had earlier said might be required.
“It cannot be extended because its objectives have largely been met,” Gaojia said.
Ebola has infected at least 5,357 people in West Africa since March, mainly in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, killing 2,630 of those, according to the World Health Organization. At least 562 have died in Sierra Leone.
The outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever is the worst since it was identified in 1976 in the forests of central Africa.
The lockdown was intended to allow 30,000 health workers, volunteers and teachers to visit every household in the country.
Some criticised the measure before it began on Friday as a rush to stock up on provisions caused a spike in prices, leaving many of Sierra Leone’s poor unable to buy food.
The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres has also warned that the lockdown could lead people to conceal cases.
Residents have largely complied with the plan, and the streets of the capital have remained mostly deserted, except for ambulances and police vehicles.
A team burying Ebola victims was attacked in Freetown on Saturday, however, as a small group defied the lockdown.
Spain on Sunday evacuated from Sierra Leone a Spanish Catholic priest, who had tested positive for the virus.
Spain’s Health Ministry said that Manuel Garcia Viejo, a member of the Hospital Order of San Juan de Dios, had been working in the western city of Lunsar.
He is the second Spanish priest to be diagnosed with Ebola. Another member of the same order, Miguel Pajares, died last month after being brought back to Spain from Liberia.
The military plane carrying Garcia Viejo left Freetown on Sunday evening. Once in Madrid, he will be taken to the Carlos III hospital, where Pajares was treated, the ministry said.
Liberia, meanwhile, opened a new 150-bed Ebola treatment centre in the capital Monrovia on Sunday. The country is currently the worst hit by the epidemic, which was first identified in neighbouring Guinea in March.
The crisis has swamped the already struggling health sectors of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. In Monrovia, a lack of beds in treatment centres has forced health workers to turn away infected patients, raising the risk of the disease’s further spread.
Around 50 patients were immediately transferred to the facility at the city’s Island Clinic from another overflowing hospital, and the government has plans to build 17 new centres across the country.
After a slow initial response, international aid and supplies are now pouring into the affected West African countries. U.S. military personnel were expected in Monrovia over the weekend to set up the command centre for an operation that will see some 3,000 soldiers deployed to the region in support of efforts to stop the outbreak.
But while the international response is picking up steam, Liberia’s Finance Minister Amara Konneh said the pace was still too slow.
“I know commitments have been made. We would just like to use every opportunity we get both privately and publicly to call on our international partners to move with speed from commitment to cash,” he said.
Additional reporting by James Giahyue in Monrovia, Julien Toyer and Rodrigo de Miguel in Madrid; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Marguerita Choy