Tommy Trenchard / Polaris

Sierra Leone puts district on ‘lockdown’ after surge in Ebola cases

Investigators find piled-up bodies, exhausted health workers amid a spike in Ebola cases in Sierra Leone's Kono district

Sierra Leone ordered a “lockdown” for the eastern district of Kono on Wednesday after health workers sent there to investigate an alarming spike in deaths from Ebola uncovered a grim scene: piles of bodies, overwhelmed medical personnel and exhausted burial teams.

"In 11 days, two teams buried 87 bodies, including a nurse, an ambulance driver and a janitor who had been drafted into removing bodies piled up at the only area hospital," the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement Wednesday night.

Olu Olushayo, an official with WHO's Ebola-response team, said they had exhausted resources in countering the spread of Ebola in Kono. "Our team met heroic doctors and nurses at their wits’ end, exhausted burial teams and lab techs, all doing the best they could, but they simply ran out of resources and were overrun with gravely ill people," Olushayo said.

In the five days before the WHO team arrived on the scene, 25 people had died in a makeshift Ebola ward, a cordoned-off section of the hospital in Kono. The body of an Ebola victim carries its heaviest viral load right after death, so the corpses are a dangerous source of contagion. Authorities hope the two-week lockdown in Kono, in effect until Dec. 23, will contain transmission of the virus, which was confirmed in seven people in the area on Tuesday.

WHO quoted a dire warning from Amara Jambai, Sierra Leone's director of disease prevention and control. "We are only seeing the ears of the hippo," he said, using a local proverb similar to "the tip of the iceberg" to describe his fear of the Ebola cases that remain to be discovered.

People will be permitted to travel within Kono, but no one will be allowed to enter or leave, Emmanuel Lebbie, a local official of the Independent Media Commission, told The Associated Press. In September, Sierra Leone ordered a nationwide lockdown for three days. Authorities kept people inside their homes as health care workers went door-to-door handing out information about Ebola and uncovering new cases.

More than 6,000 people have died from Ebola in West Africa over the last year, including more than 1,500 in Sierra Leone since June. By the end of November, the virus had infected 622 health care workers in West Africa and killed 346 of them, according to WHO figures.

The WHO's latest data on the epidemic, published on Wednesday, do not reflect the recent discovery in Kono. The WHO figures show 24 cases reported in the district in the week leading up to Dec. 7. Sierra Leone recently overtook neighboring Liberia as the country with the highest number of Ebola cases, recording 7,897 cases since the epidemic was first identified earlier this year.

Many more cases go unreported, a problem that is  "exacerbated when under-resourced front-line workers are unable to reach remote areas to get the truth from reluctant villagers," the WHO said in a statement. In Kono, health surveillance officers had no vehicles, so the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rushed rugged trucks to the scene. WHO and the CDC are working with the Sierra Leone National Ebola Response Center and the country's Ministry of Health and Sanitation to contain the outbreak.

The surge of Ebola deaths in Kono is a worrying sign of the epidemic’s persistence. The outbreak began in December 2013 in Guinea, in a region bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia, and quickly spread to capital cities in all three West African nations. Previous outbreaks had been contained in isolated villages in the rain forests of Central Africa.

Also Wednesday, Sierra Leone's junior doctors continued their strike for a third day, demanding better medical care should they contract the Ebola virus.

Wire services

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