FREETOWN, August 11 – West Africa is counting the cost of measures to contain the deadly Ebola epidemic, as unprecedented restrictions cause food shortages, transport snarls and soaring prices, sparking fears people could die of hunger.
“We are trying to cope,” said Joseph Kelfalah, the mayor of Kenema, in an eastern district of Sierra Leone that is under strict quarantine along with nearby Kailahun, but he added that food prices were “escalating”.
Tribal authorities are imposing huge fines for failure to report cases of Ebola, which has claimed nearly 1,000 lives in west Africa in the worst outbreak in four decades.
Under the country’s “Operation Octopus”, some 1,500 soldiers and police have been deployed to enforce the quarantines, turning people away at checkpoints and accompanying health workers searching for people who may have contracted the virus.
“Only essential officials and food items are being allowed in after intensive searches,” deputy police chief Karrow Kamara told AFP.
Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are the countries hardest hit by the epidemic, which the UN World Health Organization has called an international health emergency.
Liberia has been particularly affected by food shortages since declaring its state of emergency on Wednesday. It, too, has deployed soldiers to restrict movement, notably from the worst-affected northern provinces to the capital Monrovia.
– ‘People will die of hunger’ –
Sando Johnson, a senator in the province of Bomi, northwest of Monrovia, said the restrictions were “severe” and warned people would die of starvation if they are not relaxed.
“My country has been completely quarantined because soldiers don’t allow anyone to get out of the area and they don’t allow anyone to go there,” he told AFP by telephone.
“A bag of rice that sold for 1,300 LD ($14, 11 euros) is now selling for 1,800 LD. The poor people will die of hunger, for God’s sake.”
Health workers have been tasked with raising awareness about the disease which causes fever and, in the worst cases, unstoppable bleeding.
An emergency helpline set up by Liberia’s Ebola taskforce to provide information on the virus had received 1,800 calls by Friday.
“Aside from lots of confusion, aside from sick persons, aside from the fact that we also want to create awareness, this call centre is there to create calm but to also disseminate information and to gather information that can be shared with the national task force,” said Barkue Tubman, a spokesman for the centre in Monrovia.
The virus is spread by close contact with an infected person through bodily fluids such as sweat, blood and tissue.
In Sierra Leone, 10 motorcycle taxi drivers have been infected after unknowingly carrying Ebola patients, according to the president of the National Bike Riders Association, David Sesay.
The two-wheeled taxis, which put rider and passenger in close contact, are an indispensable form of transport in remote areas of west Africa.
Efforts to halt the epidemic have been stymied by ignorance, distrust of Westerners and false rumours. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has warned against spreading false information “which can lead to mass hysteria, panic and misdirection”.
– Suspected cases –
A Romanian man was placed in quarantine in a Bucharest hospital specialising in infectious diseases on suspicion of having contracted Ebola in Nigeria.
The 51 year old patient, who returned from Nigeria on July 25, exhibited symptoms of the virus — but they could also indicate malaria or typhoid fever, a hospital source said on Sunday.
A “suspected case” was also reported in Senegal, where a 27 year old man with Ebola-like symptoms was placed in isolation in a hospital in the north of the country. The man later tested negative for the virus, a health official said.
Nigeria has reported 13 confirmed, probable or suspected cases of Ebola, whose incubation period ranges from two to 21 days.
It suspended flights into the country by the Gambian national airline on Sunday, saying the company’s efforts to screen for the virus were “unsatisfactory”.
Meanwhile, Spain said a Spanish priest infected with Ebola will be treated with an experimental drug already used on two repatriated Americans.
The drug, called ZMapp, arrived at Madrid’s La Paz Carlos III hospital, where the 75 year old missionary was being treated in isolation, the health ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
The Roman Catholic priest, Miguel Pajares, was one of three people who tested positive for Ebola at the Saint Joseph Hospital in Monrovia where he worked.
Giving the traditional Angelus prayer in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican Sunday, Pope Francis called for prayers “for the victims of the Ebola virus and for those who are fighting to stop it”.
The World Health Organization said Saturday that clinical trials of vaccines against Ebola should begin soon and will likely be ready for widespread use by early next year.