As Ebola Death Toll Tops 700, Officials Fight To Contain Disease

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Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are struggling with the ongoing outbreak. International correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton updates NPR's Eric Westervelt on the latest news about Ebola in West Africa.


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt sitting in for Arun Rath.

The first of two American aid workers infected with the Ebola virus arrived at a hospital in Atlanta today. They'll be treated at a special isolation unit at Emory University Hospital.

In West Africa, the toll from the deadly outbreak has topped 700, with hundreds more infected in the three nations most affected by the outbreak.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is monitoring developments from her base in Senegal and she joins us now.

Ofeibea, what's the latest on the regional response to what global health officials are calling really the worst outbreak of Ebola?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: This past week, Sierra Leone and Liberia before it have imposed tough new measures. They say they are going to use the army and police to quarantine communities, zones and even homes at the epicenters of the virus. And they are warning people that they have to bring their loved ones to a health center.

Also, three presidents met on Friday. They said that they're going to do much more at the border crossings to screen people coming in and out of. That will also happen at the airports into Sierra Leone, Liberia and the third country affected, Guinea.

WESTERVELT: Ofeibea, this latest outbreak was first reported in February. You reported in March that Doctors Without Borders in Guinea was already feeling overwhelmed. It's August. Why did it take African and world health officials months to mobilize an aggressive response to this very serious situation?

QUIST-ARCTON: We've got to remember that this is a region that is emerging from deadly, devastating civil wars. So they're already dealing with all sorts of problems. Ebola on top of it has made people frightened, jittery. They are nervous and there is a lot of suspicion. Many health workers are saying there has not been enough sensitization and awareness campaigns. And then, there is the possibility of survival. So mixed messages and confusion have led to people keeping their loved ones at home, hidden even. So much so that Liberia and Sierra Leone have said that, we will prosecute you if you do not bring those suffering or thought to be suffering from Ebola to centers where they can be cared for.

WESTERVELT: As you point, out local authorities are up against some fear, worry, confusion and ignorance. Briefly, Ofeibea, what are the biggest cultural hurdles in battling Ebola in West Africa that you've seen?

QUIST-ARCTON: The one that's most mentioned is traditional burial rituals, where of course, you wash down the body of your loved one who has died. Now, that is a way that Ebola spreads easily. And people don't want to give up. You know, that is the way they have looked after their dead for hundreds of years. Suddenly being told, no, you can't touch them, and that they must be buried in a hole in the ground is absolute anathema. And that's why many people are saying, who brought this disease to West Africa? It was the White health workers. That's why we have seen that health centers run by Westerners have been attacked. People who are trying to help the communities have been attacked because it's not known in this region. And people just trying to get used to it, but it's obviously tough.

WESTERVELT: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton with us from Dakar. Thank you, Ofeibea.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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