MONROVIA/GENEVA: Liberia battled yesterday to halt the spread of the Ebola disease in its crowded, run-down oceanside capital Monrovia, recording the most new deaths as fatalities from the world’s worst outbreak of the deadly virus rose above 1,200.
The epidemic of the hemorrhagic disease, which can kill up to 90 percent of those it infects, is ravaging the three small West African states of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and also has a toehold in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy.
As the Geneva-based World Health Organization rushed to ramp up the global response to the outbreak, including emergency food deliveries to quarantined zones, it announced that deaths from it had risen to 1,299 as of August 16, out of 2,240 cases.
Between August 14 and 16, Liberia recorded the most new deaths, 53, followed by Sierra Leone with 17, and Guinea with 14.
On a more hopeful note, the WHO expressed “cautious optimism” that the spread of the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation where four deaths out of 12 confirmed cases have been recorded since July, could be stopped.
It also described the situation in Guinea, where the virus made its first appearance in West Africa in December, as currently “less alarming” than in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The WHO said it was working with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) to ensure food delivery to 1 million people living in Ebola quarantine zones cordoned off by local security forces in a border zone of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
“Providing regular food supplies is a potent means of limiting unnecessary movement,” it said in a statement.
Besides infection in border zones, Liberia is fighting to stop the spread of the virus in the poorest neighbourhoods of its capital, such as the West Point slum where at the weekend a rock-throwing crowd attacked and looted a temporary holding centre for suspected Ebola cases, 17 of whom fled. As fears of wider contagion increased — Ebola is spread by contact with the bodily fluids of infected persons — Liberia sent police to track down the fugitive suspected cases.
“We are glad to confirm that all of the 17 individuals have been accounted for and have now been transferred to JFK Ebola specialist treatment centre,” Liberia’s Information Minister Lewis Brown told Reuters yesterday.
He added that after meetings with religious and community leaders, a task force was being set up to go door-to-door through West Point, a labyrinth of muddy alleys, to explain the risks of the disease and the need to isolate infected patients.
“I know that Monrovia is really of concern to WHO,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said in Geneva.
Lewis said the Liberian authorities were considering imposing even tougher restrictions on movements.
Liberia and Sierra Leone’s weak health systems have been overwhelmed by the multiplying numbers of cases and deaths.
WHO has said it is coordinating a “massive scaling up” of international assistance to the worst affected countries.
But a Liberian Health Ministry report for August 17 said its Ebola-hit Lofa County had stopped burials due to a lack of body bags. “Absolutely no body bags,” the report said.
It said the ministry warehouse had only three pairs of rubber boots remaining and no more bottles of hand sanitizers.
“I am sorry to say the government has lost the fight against Ebola. It is out of control now,” said student Samuel Zorh.
On Friday, the Liberian and Sierra Leonean governments and a medical charity chided the WHO for its slow response, saying more action was needed to save victims threatened by the disease and hunger.
The WHO declared the West African Ebola outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” on August 8, triggering global alarm as countries stepped up precautions and testing.
Reflecting this, emergency services in Berlin yesterday cordoned off a job centre and took a woman with Ebola-like symptoms including high fever to hospital. The UN health agency this month gave the green light to use untested pharmaceuticals to treat Ebola patients. In Monrovia, three African healthcare workers were given the rare experimental ZMapp drug, which has already been used on two American aid workers being treated in the United States after being evacuated from Liberia