Ebola crisis: Sierra Leone and Liberia announce state of emergency

Tough new measures will include house-to-house searches to round up suspected victims being hidden by their families and military-enforced quarantine zones

The Ebola virus outbreak has led both Sierra Leone and Liberia to declare states of public emergency, meaning the army can now move in to enforce quarantine zones.

It is a major escalation of both governments’ responses to the disease, which has killed more than 670 people across four West African countries since February.

The measures in Sierra Leone were announced in a statement late last night by President Ernest Bai Koroma, and came just hours after a similar declaration from neighbouring Liberia.

Top health officials have repeatedly criticised the lack of national and international organisation in response to the Ebola outbreak, which has seen fears in Britain and the rest of the world that the virus could be transmitted globally.

Video: Death toll continues to rise across West Africa

In Sierra Leone, poor infection control systems and chaos sparked by mistrust in the health service have allowed the virus to reach from remote jungle epicentres right to the heart of the coastal capital Freetown.

As a result the West African airline Asky has suspended its flights to both the capitals of Liberia and Sierra Leone, and said passengers departing from Guinea would be carefully screened.

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It is the same airline that was used by the US citizen Patrick Sawyer who flew to Lagos, Nigeria before he died from Ebola.

President Koroma has now cancelled a planned visit to Washington for the US-Africa summit next week.

Speaking late on Wednesday, he said: “I hereby proclaim a State of Public Emergency to enable us take a more robust approach to deal with the Ebola outbreak.”

The measures will be in place initially between 60 and 90 days and “all epicentres of the disease will be quarantined,” President Koroma said.

Following a number of attacks on health workers by local communities – some of whom blame the authorities for causing the disease – security forces will be used to protect NGO officers and health officials, and house-to-house searches will be carried out to track Ebola victims.

Liberia said on Wednesday it will close schools and consider quarantining some communities, while all non-essential government workers will be required to take 30 days of compulsory leave.

While Britain has brought in measures to protect its borders from the threat of an Ebola victim arriving here on a plane, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the most effective contribution the UK can make is with helping fight the outbreak on the ground in West Africa.

By the end of the week at least five officials from Public Health England will have joined teams of experts from all over the world to help coordinate the systems of infection control, quarantine and contact tracing required to slow and ultimately end the outbreak.

International efforts are being coordinated by Medicins San Frontieres and the World Health Organisation, which said in its last Ebola updated that it continues to “scale up and strengthen all aspects of the response” across Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

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