Sierra Leone Imposes Drastic Measures To Stop Ebola's Spread

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Sierra Leone is one of three West African nations hard hit by the Ebola virus. Officials have declared a public health emergency to try to stop the spread of Ebola.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The number of victims of the deadly Ebola virus is rising. The World Health Organization says the number of people who have died from the virus in West Africa has climbed to almost 900. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in Sierra Leone, one of the three countries hardest hit by Ebola. And she's on the line with us from the capital, Freetown. Good morning to you, Ofeibea.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

GREENE: So let's discuss the situation in the country that you're in: Sierra Leone. They have declared a public health emergency and they're pretty drastic measures to try and stop the spread of this virus. What exactly are they doing?

QUIST-ARCTON: Monday was a stay-at-home day in Sierra Leone. And that was really to give the authorities, I believe, the time and the quiet to be able to deploy troops around the country, and especially to the Ebola epicenters in the East. The government here has imposed these drastic new measures and that includes quarantining homes, towns where Ebola is detected or suspected. And that's not just here - the same is happening across the border in Liberia. So West Africa is finally trying to grapple with the spread of the disease in this region.

GREENE: You know, you describe these countries with quarantines in place, people staying at home - I mean - how are citizens responding? Are they following these orders from the military?

QUIST-ARCTON: It's just started, so we'll have to see. Sierra Leoneans and Liberians, Guineans - they're frightened by health workers wearing the equivalent of spacesuits, you know, protective gear to help those who have been infected. But there are other reasons, David. Their normal traditions here, like the burial of people's loved ones - there's a very intimate ceremony where they wash down the bodies - now that is how Ebola can spread, through bodily fluids such as saliva or sweat. So they're being told no, you cannot do that anymore. Across the border in Liberia, now the government is saying that people will have to cremate their loved ones. That is not the tradition here in West Africa, so there's been lots of misinformation. The message was that Ebola kills, there's no cure, there's no vaccine, there's no treatment. Health workers say the message should've been get your loved ones to a health center, then there's a chance of survival.

GREENE: And I guess the big fear, Ofeibea - I mean, we have everything that people in West Africa are going through, but the fear is that this could spread to other parts of the world. I mean, there's a real response now coming from the World Health Organization and others to try and stop this from spreading further.

QUIST-ARCTON: That's right, $200 million from the World Bank to help. But that's to shore up these really fragile health systems. And David, these are countries that are emerging from devastating civil wars in the 1990s through to the early 2000s. So West Africa has a lot to contend with. Also health workers are saying we need many more experienced hands on the ground. And that is what they're asking from the global community. They're asking for more engagement, more resources, more money to help fight the spread of Ebola.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton on the line with us from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Ofeibea, thanks very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you, David. It's always a pleasure, although, of course, this is a devastating story.

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