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Containing Ebola may cost over $30 billion

World Bank warning comes as burial teams in Sierra Leone declare a strike, arguing pay not commensurate with risks

The cost of Africa's Ebola epidemic could reach $32.6 billion by the end of 2015 if it spreads significantly beyond the worst-hit countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the World Bank said on Wednesday.

"The enormous economic cost of the current outbreak to the affected countries and the world could have been avoided by prudent ongoing investment in health systems-strengthening," World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said in a statement.

The report highlighted two possible scenarios for the outbreak in coming months. The first, called a "Low Ebola" scenario, refers to rapid containment in the three most affected countries. A "High Ebola" scenario corresponds to slower containment within those countries and infections spreading throughout the region.

"As it is far from certain that the epidemic will be fully contained by December 2014 and in light of the considerable uncertainty about its future trajectory, two alternative scenarios are used to estimate the medium-term (2015) impact of the epidemic, extending to the end of calendar year 2015," the World Bank report said.

The World Bank said that the successful containment in Nigeria and Senegal serves as evidence that adequate health care and strong policy responses can combat the deadly virus's spread.

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As the World Bank calls for more money to stop the spread of the deadly virus, Ebola workers have gone on strike in Sierra Leone. It is the latest in a series of strikes in affected West African countries among health workers who argue they are not being paid enough for the risky work.

Health officials, especially front-line doctors and nurses, are particularly vulnerable to Ebola, which is spread via the bodily fluids of infected patients. Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) said more than 300 health workers had contracted Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three most-affected countries. Nearly half of them have died.

Making sure health care workers have the necessary supplies, including personal protective equipment, has been a challenge especially given that many flights in and out of Ebola-affected countries have been canceled.

Burial teams in Sierra Leone abandoned the bodies of Ebola victims in the capital after going on strike this week because they said they had not been paid. Though an official claimed Wednesday the situation had been resolved, organizers of the strike could not immediately be reached for confirmation.

The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation reported that bodies of Ebola victims were being left in homes and on the streets of Freetown because of the strike by burial teams. The bodies of Ebola victims are highly contagious.

Speaking on a radio breakfast program Wednesday, deputy health minister Madina Rahman said the strike had been resolved. Rahman said the dispute centered on a one-week backlog for hazard pay that had been deposited in the bank but was not given to burial teams on time.

"The health ministry is going to investigate the delay," Rahman said.

Last month, dozens of hospital workers in a Sierra Leone Ebola ward went on strike, arguing that the government had failed to pay them. As many as 80 workers deserted their posts in protest. Their strike follows other strikes at the same hospital by staff members who condemned the poor working conditions, infection rates among colleagues, and unfair pay.

Also in September, doctors and nurses at Liberia’s largest hospital went on strike. They demand better equipment to protect them from the deadly virus and payment for their work. Health care workers at JFK, Liberia's largest referral hospital, said they had not been paid for two months.

“From the beginning of the Ebola outbreak we have not had any protective equipment to work with. As a result, so many doctors got infected by the virus,” said John Tugbeh, spokesman for the strikers at Monrovia’s JFK hospital.

In late September, Liberia's chief medical officer placed herself under quarantine for 21 days after her office assistant died of Ebola.

According to WHO, Ebola has so far killed more than 3,400 people in West Africa.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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