Freetown (AFP) – Sierra Leone began a quarantine of more than one million people Thursday in the largest open-ended lockdown in the Ebola outbreak, as world leaders met to discuss the crisis at the United Nations.
The northern districts of Port Loko and Bombali have been closed off indefinitely along with the southern district of Moyamba — effectively sealing in around 1.2 million people.
With the eastern districts of Kenema and Kailahun already under quarantine, more than a third of the population of six million — in five of the nation’s 14 districts — now finds itself unable to move freely.
The president said 12 of the county’s 149 tribal chiefdoms — much smaller administrative areas than districts — were also to be placed in quarantine, although the total population in these areas was not immediately clear.
“The isolation of districts and chiefdoms will definitely pose great difficulty but the lives of everyone and the survival of our country takes precedence over these difficulties,” President Ernest Bai Koroma told the nation in a televised address late Wednesday.
The deadliest Ebola epidemic on record has infected more than 6,200 people in west Africa and killed nearly half of them, according to the World Health Organization’s latest figures.
The virus can fell its victims within days, causing rampant fever, severe muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and — in many cases — unstoppable internal and external bleeding.
In Sierra Leone, Ebola has infected 1,940 people, killing 593, by the WHO count, but the UN agency has warned the number of cases across the region could explode in the coming months without an urgent response.
Obama, who is sending 3,000 troops to west Africa to help health workers battle the contagion, urged other countries Wednesday to get behind a broader international effort.
“As we speak, America is deploying our doctors and scientists — supported by our military — to help contain the outbreak of Ebola and pursue new treatments,” Obama told the 193-member assembly.
World leaders were due to attend a meeting in New York on Ebola convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later Thursday, with Koroma and Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf connected by video link.
The meeting — part of the United Nations General Assembly — will hear from US President Barack Obama and world leaders are expected to pledge help for efforts to try to contain the spread of the virus.