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Sierra Leone declares state of emergency in Ebola crisis

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Sierra Leone, hard hit by the worst-ever Ebola outbreak, has declared a state of emergency and is mobilizing police and the military to quarantine the epicenters of the disease.

President Ernest Bai Koroma said in a statement last night that the crisis, which has been blamed for 672 deaths in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, is an “extraordinary” challenge that requires “extraordinary measures.”

Among the steps announced:

  • Sealing off towns and homes where the disease is identified until they are cleared by medical teams.
  • Restricting public meetings and gatherings.
  • “Active surveillance and house-to-house searches” designed to trace Ebola victims and people who might have been exposed.
  • New protocols for screening both arriving and departing passengers at the country’s main airport.

Police and troops will be used to make sure that people cooperate with the medical teams. All three of the countries have reportedly had a problem with villagers resisting or rejecting medical attention, in some cases because they fear that their presence is a cause of the disease.

Koroma said he would cancel a planned visit to Washington this week for a U.S.-Africa summit.

His announcement, in a speech to the nation, followed a similar declaration by the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  In a speech Sunday, she announced the closure of all but three of the country’s land border crossings, closed schools, restricted public gatherings and quarantined communities heavily affected by the Ebola outbreak in the West African nation.

The countries hardest hit are ill-equipped to battle the outbreak, with limited medical facilities that have become even more depleted as medical personnel have themselves contracted the disease.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported, Liberian health officials said an isolation unit for Ebola victims in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, was overrun with cases and health workers were being forced to treat up to 20 new patients in their homes.

“The staff here are overwhelmed,” Tolbert Nyenswah, an assistant minister of health, told Reuters. “This is a humanitarian crisis in Liberia.”

The U.S. Peace Corps said on Wednesday it was temporarily withdrawing 340 volunteers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and that two of its volunteers had been isolated and were under observation after coming in contact with a person who later died of the Ebola virus.