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World

Sierre Leone To Send Volunteers Out On Ebola Campaign

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has now killed more than 2,400 people since it began six months ago. In Sierra Leone, a nationwide lockdown has been declared to try to contain the epidemic. Starting this Friday, the nation's population of just under 6 million people will be confined to areas near their homes for three days, while 21,000 volunteers go door-to-door testing for Ebola. For more on this, we go to reporter Umaru Fofana. He joins us from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Good morning.

UMARU FOFANA: Hi, good morning.

CORNISH: So 6 million Sierra Leoneans are being told to stay home for three days. What's the government's goal here?

FOFANA: Well, it's the government thinking that keeping people indoors for three days, they should be able to identify at a very initial stage those who show signs or symptoms of the Ebola virus. If they test positive for the virus, they are taken to treatment centers. They also say that this should be a period when volunteers would go door-to-door to educate people about Ebola, discuss with them about the dangers of the virus and then talk to them about precautionary measures.

CORNISH: Who are these volunteers, and how are they equipped to protect themselves? We know so many medical workers in this part of the country have been affected by the outbreak.

FOFANA: Absolutely. I mean, lots of health workers - in the last count, more than 50 nurses have died of the disease, and the fourth medical doctor died over the weekend. So this is a concern which a lot of people have expressed here because 21,000 volunteers are going to be recruited from across the country - mostly young people, who mostly have no knowledge whatsoever of public health.

So it's a concern that's been expressed by a lot of people, but the government says that they will not have any physical contact with those people that they're going to meet in home. But a medical concern that has been expressed is, there are not enough ambulances. The rescue services (unintelligible) even come to homes to pick up patients, I mean, completely insufficient.

CORNISH: You mentioned ambulances - there were reports that the U.S. has donated at least five. But is that helpful considering the numbers we're talking about?

FOFANA: Basically the people are saying that the U.S. donation is really essential. The government itself bought about a dozen or so ambulances in the last week, but that is a drop in the ocean, it is to be said. There is a lot more demand for ambulances to pick up sick people and to even bury the dead. The entire country's health care delivery system has been completely overstretched, and it's a concern which the government is not hiding. There are only two treatment centers in the whole country, and those two treatment centers are in the East of the country. There are no beds available anymore and patients are overflowing at at least one of the centers run by the government in the Eastern town of Kenema.

CORNISH: Sierra Leone has already tried to use at least local quarantines, right? I mean, last month there was a 21-day quarantine on all homes exposed to the virus which was nominally enforced by the police. What are people feeling about the odds of a successful quarantine of the entire country?

FOFANA: Once a home is quarantined, health workers should be moving in to be checking the temperature, checking the symptoms of all those living in the compound. But, I mean, the experience here has shown that when homes are quarantined, health workers are not necessarily moving to those homes.

I went very close to one such home over the weekend where a medical doctor - the fourth doctor died in the country of Ebola, and I saw security personnel around. But there were no health workers, and that was the fourth or fifth day of them being quarantined. No health workers had moved in there. Nobody knows what the Ebola status of those remaining in the home, I mean, is. There it is hoped that this time around they should be able to improve on that. How they do it with 21,000 people nationwide is anybody's guess.

CORNISH: That's Sierra Leonean journalist Umaru Fofana, speaking to us from Freetown. Thank you so much.

FOFANA: It's a pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.