Michael Duff / AP

Millions in Sierra Leone on Ebola lockdown

Three days of home confinement ordered in hopes that it will allow health workers to isolate cases

A three-day lockdown is underway in Sierra Leone, with the country’s population of six million being told to remain at home to allow for house-to-house health care visits aimed at isolating cases of the deadly Ebola virus.

Aside from vehicles carrying police and health workers, the streets of the capital city Freetown were deserted Friday, news agencies reported.

Meanwhile, thousands of health care workers began visiting homes in crowded urban neighborhoods and remote villages in hopes of finding and isolating individuals infected by the virus.

Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma urged his countrymen to cooperate. "The survival and dignity of each and every Sierra Leonean is at stake," he said Thursday night in an address to the nation.

He added: "These are extraordinary times and extraordinary times require extraordinary measures."

At least 562 people have died in Sierra Leone from the virus. In a bid to combat its spread, 30,000 health workers, volunteers and teachers aim to visit every household in the country in just three days to educate people and isolate the infected.

UNICEF said the measure provides an opportunity to tell people how to protect themselves. 

"Ose to Ose Ebola Tok" — "house-to-house Ebola talk" in the widely-spoken Krio language — will see more than 7,000 volunteer teams of four visiting the country's 1.5 million homes. 

They will hand out bars of soap and literature on how to prevent infection as well as set up "neighborhood watch"-style Ebola surveillance teams.

Unprecedented lockdown

Ebola has infected at least 5,357 people in West Africa this year, killing 2,630 of them.

Many fear the crisis will grow far worse, in part because people infected with the disease who are afraid of dying at treatment centers often hide in their homes, potentially infecting others.

However, international experts warned there might not be enough beds for new patients found during the lockdown, which runs through Sunday.

The World Health Organization said it has no record of any previous nationwide lockdown of this scale and suggested it has not happened since the plague devastated Europe during the Middle Ages.

The closest parallel seems to have been a plague scare in India in 1994, when officials closed off a region around the city of Surat, shutting down schools, offices, movie theaters and banks.

UNICEF said the government campaign provides an opportunity to teach people how to protect themselves.

"If people don't have access to the right information, we need to bring lifesaving messages to them, where they live, at their doorsteps," said Roeland Monasch, a UNICEF representative in Sierra Leone.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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