FREETOWN: West Africa’s Ebola-hit nations imposed stringent new rules Thursday to tackle the world’s worst-ever outbreak of the tropical virus, as the U.S. and European countries issued travel warnings to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
The leaders of Sierra Leone and Liberia canceled trips next week for a U.S.-Africa summit in Washington and instead will meet Friday in Guinea “to take the response to a new level,” the World Health Organization said.
The three countries, which agreed to launch a $100 million response plan at an emergency regional summit, are struggling to contain an epidemic that has infected more than 1,300 people since the start of the year, hit major cities and sparked alarm over its possible spread.
The WHO raised the death toll by 57 to 729, announcing that 122 new cases had been detected between Thursday and Sunday last week.
“The Ebola virus disease poses an extraordinary challenge to our nation,” Sierra Leone’s leader Ernest Bai Koroma said in a televised address to the nation. “Consequently ... I hereby proclaim a state of public emergency to enable us to take a more robust approach to deal with the Ebola outbreak.”
Koroma announced a raft of measures as part of the state of emergency, including quarantining Ebola-hit areas and cancelling foreign trips by ministers.
Sierra Leone has seen 233 deaths, including that of medic Umar Khan, described by Koroma as a “national hero,” who saved the lives of more than 100 Ebola patients before succumbing to the tropical bug. The current outbreak of Ebola, which started at the beginning of this year, is estimated to have killed about 55 percent of those it has infected. The virus causes severe muscular pains, fever, headaches and, in the worst cases, unstoppable bleeding.
Although not particularly robust – it isn’t airborne and can be killed with soap and hot water – the virus is spread through contact with bodily fluids, meaning anyone in close quarters with a patient could be at risk.
Sierra Leone’s announcement comes a day after Liberia, which has seen 156 deaths, shut all schools and placed “non-essential” government workers on 30 days’ leave.
Kenya, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo, home to some of the continent’s largest transport hubs, said they had enhanced screening at border points and airports.
U.S., German and French health authorities also issued a warning against travel to the three affected countries to stop the disease spreading.
“It is like fighting a forest fire. If you leave behind even one burning ember, one case undetected, it could reignite the epidemic,” said Tom Frieden, the chief of the U.S.’s top public health body.
Togo-based pan-African airline ASKY, which serves 20 destinations, has halted all flights to and from Liberia and Sierra Leone following the death of a passenger from the virus.
The 40-year-old man, who traveled from Liberia, died in Lagos Friday, in Nigeria’s first confirmed death from Ebola.
If there are more instances of he virus’ crossing borders plane, it could lead to new flight restrictions, the world aviation agency said.