The United Nations has probably missed targets it set for curbing West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, as new infections surge in Sierra Leone.
Only 23 percent of cases are being isolated in Liberia, and 40 percent in Sierra Leone, short of a goal set in October to isolate seven-in-ten cases by tomorrow. Neither country has enough burial teams to achieve a target of safely burying 70 percent of Ebola-related deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Still, unreliable data make it difficult to know conclusively whether the goals have been met, the Geneva-based WHO said.
While new infections are declining in Liberia and stable in Guinea, they’re rising in Sierra Leone, particularly in the country’s north and west, including the capital Freetown, according to the WHO. Burial rites in which mourners touch the corpse of a dead person are continuing to contribute to the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Alpha Kanu, the nation’s information minister, said in a Nov. 27 briefing.
“Getting your people who for centuries have been steeped in those cultural practices to abandon those practices overnight is one of the challenges we have been facing,” Kanu said. “The culture of continuing with traditional practices is still very much a challenge. It’s a very touchy-feely African culture.”
The outbreak began on Dec. 6 last year in the remote Guinean village of Meliandou, where a two-year-old boy, Emile Ouamouno died. It’s since raced through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, infecting 16,000 people and killing 5,689, making it the worst Ebola outbreak on record. Cases have also been reported in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, the U.S. and Spain.
The epidemic may wipe as much as $33 billion from the region’s economy in a worst-case scenario, according to the World Bank, which is mobilizing $1 billion for the response.
More than 1,300 people have been infected in Sierra Leone in the past three weeks, and the country’s total number of infections will soon eclipse those in Liberia, the worst-affected country, according to the WHO.
The rise in cases is still linked to denial, people refusing to take sick people to hospitals or treatment centers and unsafe burial, according to Santigie Sesay, head of the Hastings 1 Ebola Treatment Center on the outskirts of Freetown.
“We can only see a drop in cases with a change in attitude and acceptance of the health messages,” he said in an interview on Nov. 29.
Doctors Without Borders is building a new treatment center in Freetown that will open within the next 2 weeks, according to Francien Huizing, a spokeswoman for the medical charity in the Sierra Leonean capital.
In Liberia, only 67 cases were reported in the week to Nov. 23, and the northern district of Lofa has reported no cases for four weeks, the WHO said. Successful community outreach programs to educate people at risk and get them to adopt new burial practices have helped to curb infections in Liberia, said Dorian Job, deputy emergency program manager for Doctors Without Borders in Geneva.
The charity’s 240-bed ELWA3 treatment center in Monrovia only had 23 patients as of Nov. 17. Still, in some areas community outreach teams still lack fuel for their cars, preventing them from getting to remote communities, Job said.
“In general, Liberia is better supplied and has more resources than other countries,” he said. “What is important is that we don’t relax the effort. It’s not over.”