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Thousands in Sierra Leone break Ebola quarantine to find food

Aid groups warn prohibitive quarantines will continue to hurt food provision and West African economy

Thousands of people in Sierra Leone are violating Ebola quarantines to find food because aid deliveries are not reaching them, international relief agencies said Tuesday.

While public health authorities have said restrictions on movement may be necessary to bring under control an Ebola outbreak unlike any other, the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella organization for aid organizations, warned that they were cutting off food to thousands of people.

"The quarantine of Kenema, the third largest town in Sierra Leone, is having a devastating impact on trade — travel is restricted so trucks carrying food cannot freely drive around," the committee said in a statement. "Food is becoming scarce, which has led to prices increasing beyond the reach of ordinary people."

Because services are not reaching quarantined neighborhoods, people who are being monitored for signs of Ebola — and should be staying at home — are venturing out to markets to look for food, potentially contaminating many others, said Jeanne Kamara, Christian Aid's Sierra Leone representative.

The announcement comes weeks after aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned against the unwarranted use of quarantines and travel restrictions that would hurt economies, upset trade routes and reduce people's trust in government authorities who sealed off large swaths of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to prevent the spread of Ebola.

The Sierra Leone government, with help from the United Nations' World Food Program (WFP), delivers food and other services to those under quarantine. But there are many "nooks and crannies" in the country — remote villages and communities — that are being missed, Kamara added. 

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed nearly 5,000 people and authorities have gone to extreme lengths to bring it under control. Sierra Leone said Tuesday that it would maintain a state of emergency, which includes restrictions on large gatherings, in place for a full year. Restrictions on movement and gatherings have also been used in Liberia and Guinea, the two other countries hardest hit by the epidemic.

When houses are put under quarantine in various neighborhoods in Sierra Leone, teams are supposed to go to them to identify their needs, Christian Aid's Kamara said: How many people are living there? Are there pregnant women or sick people with special needs?

But Kamara said that with the infections still increasing quickly, it was difficult for the government to keep up with the number of people being monitored for the disease. The Sierra Leone outbreak has shifted in recent weeks, with the number of new cases ballooning in the country's western and northern districts, far from where the outbreak began, in the country's east.

"The number is just rising exponentially," she said. "The speed with which we have to have such a robust system of planning and coordination" is too fast.

In October, the WFP fed more than 450,000 people in Sierra Leone, including people who are under quarantine or being treated for Ebola, said Alexis Masciarelli, a spokesman for the agency. The distribution of food has been difficult, he said, since it has required bringing food to remote areas by poor roads. Pick-up trucks have driven around some communities to do door-to-door handouts.

He acknowledged that getting good information about where people need help is difficult, but he said WFP asks smaller organizations, with deep connections to the communities, to help them keep track of a fast-moving situation.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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