FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – Sierra Leone is considering another nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of Ebola, after a largely successful one in which teams visited more than 1 million households to hand out information on the disease and check for sick people, the president said Tuesday.
An Ebola outbreak that has touched five West African countries is believed to have sickened more than 5,800 people and killed more than 2,800. The unprecedented size and sweep of the outbreak has led to dramatic measures, like the cordoning off of entire communities in Liberia and the shutdown in Sierra Leone.
President Ernest Bai Koroma said on local radio Tuesday that he was "mainly satisfied with the whole process, as it has helped reaching more homes and bringing to the fore many sick people and corpses."
Authorities are expected to give tallies later in the day. Koroma said it would be up to the task force coordinating the Ebola response to recommend another lockdown, and, if it did, he would consider repeating the exercise.
The three-day lockdown is believed to be the most dramatic disease-control measure taken since the plague was sweeping Europe in the Middle Ages.
Many experts initially raised doubts about the lockdown's ability to slow the outbreak, saying it would be hard to enforce, and there were fears it could breed resentment among the population and even lead to violence.
But in the wake of a largely successful lockdown, Dr. David Heymann, an Ebola expert, said reaching so many people with information about Ebola could be crucial to stopping the outbreak. Six months into the largest-ever Ebola outbreak, confusion, fear and misunderstanding about the disease is still stymieing efforts to control it.
"It's important for African governments to innovate and find new ways of getting messages out to the people," said Heymann, professor of infectious diseases at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "(The lockdown) seemed to pass without violence and it went against much of international advice. Maybe it's the innovation that will make a difference."
In a sign of how much mistrust and misunderstanding still reigns, teams that were going door-to-door in Sierra Leone reported rumors that the soap they were handing out was poisonous. People sent to treat patients, disinfect homes or provide information about Ebola have come under attack in some communities because of fears they are spreading the disease. One such team was killed last week in Guinea.
This outbreak has also overwhelmed the resources of countries with already weak health systems. Public health experts have warned the response needs more health care workers, treatment centers, protective gear and even basic cleaning products. In Liberia, in particular, treatment centers have been filling faster than they can be built.
If more isn't done to control the outbreak, the World Health Organization predicted in a study published Tuesday that the case toll could hit 21,000 in the next six weeks.
WHO has also warned that current recorded tolls are likely vast under estimates.
Experts caution predictions don't take into account response efforts. In recent weeks, many countries have promised to set up new treatment clinics and send in doctors and nurses. Britain will train 164 health care workers to treat Ebola patients in Sierra Leone, the country's chief medical officer, Dr. Sally Davies, said Tuesday. Those being trained are members of the government's health staff and responded to a call for volunteers sent out last week.
Ebola, which is transmitted through bodily fluids, has no licensed treatment or vaccine. But some experimental drugs have been tried out in this outbreak. There are now plans for more organized trials in West Africa, possibly as soon as November.
Dr. Peter Horby, of Oxford University who is heading the effort, said he and colleagues will start assessing which clinics in the region might be able to conduct the trials. Horby said they are hoping to enroll 100 to 200 patients once they decide which treatment to test.