FREETOWN/MONROVIA: Hundreds of troops deployed in Sierra Leone and Liberia Monday to fight the worst outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, as the death toll climbed to 887 and three new suspected cases of the highly contagious disease were reported in Nigeria.
With health care systems in the West Africa nations overrun by the epidemic, the African Development Bank said Monday it would immediately disburse $50 million to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea – the countries worst affected – as part of an international effort to contain it.
The World Health Organization, which warned last week of catastrophic consequences if the disease were not controlled, reported 61 new deaths in the two days to Aug. 1. The outbreak began in February in the forests of Guinea, where the toll continues to rise, but its epicenter has since shifted to neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In Nigeria, where U.S. citizen Patrick Sawyer died of Ebola in late July after arriving from Liberia, the WHO reported three new cases, two of them probable and one suspected. Nigerian authorities had said earlier Monday that a doctor who treated Sawyer had contracted the disease, but a Health Ministry official declined to comment on the discrepancy.
Panic among local communities, which have attacked health workers and threatened to burn down isolation wards, prompted Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to impose tough measures last week, including the closure of schools and the quarantine of the region hardest hit by the disease.
Long convoys of military trucks ferried troops and medical workers Monday to Sierra Leone’s far east, where the density of cases is highest. Military spokesman Col. Michael Samoura said the operation, code-named Octopus, involved around 750 military personnel.
Troops will gather in the southeastern town of Bo before travelling to isolated communities to implement quarantines, he added. Health care workers will be allowed to come and go freely, and the communities will be kept supplied with food.
In neighboring Liberia, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and ministers held a crisis meeting Sunday to discuss a series of anti-Ebola measures as police contained infected communities in the northern Lofa county.
Police were setting up checkpoints and roadblocks for key entrance and exit points to infected communities, and nobody was allowed to leave quarantined communities. Troops were fanning out across Liberia to help deal with the emergency.
“The situation will probably get worse before it gets better,” Liberian Information Minister Lewis Brown told Reuters. “We are over-stretched. We need support; we need resources; we need workers.”
WHO chief Margaret Chan warned regional leaders Friday that Ebola was outpacing their efforts to contain it, and pledged to organize a $100 million international response to bring the outbreak under control.
A source in the Liberian capital Monrovia said several clinics were spontaneously closing their doors, as doctors were too afraid to treat patients. More than 60 doctors have already died of Ebola, hampering efforts to control the outbreak.
Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontiéres, which normally spearheads the fight against Ebola, has only a small team in Liberia and says it does not have the capacity to increase it.
Health workers say they cannot cope with the number of cases, a scenario exacerbated by the departure of some international staff following the infection of two U.S. staff of charity Samaritan’s Purse in Liberia.
One of them, Kent Brantly, was improving Sunday, after being flown back to the United States for treatment. The second staff member, Nancy Writebol, was expected to arrive back in the United States by midday on Tuesday, according to Samaritan’s Purse.
The normally bustling streets of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown were eerily quiet Monday, after President Ernest Bai Koromo called on residents to stay home and pray, a Reuters reporter said.
Ambulances and police vehicles lined the streets, while radio stations played interviews with health ministry officials and a musical jingle giving information about the symptoms.
Highly contagious, the deadliest strain of the Ebola virus can kill up to 90 percent of those infected, though in the current outbreak the rate is running around 55 percent. Symptoms initially include muscle pains and joint aches, though they worsen to vomiting, diarrhea and internal and external bleeding in the final stages.
Officials seeking to bury Ebola victims faced protests at a burial site in a suburb of Monrovia this weekend and about 25 soldiers were called in to guard the site.