• Health services, economies overwhelmed in Ebola-hit Africa

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    MONROVIA: Health workers in Liberia reported being overwhelmed by new Ebola cases on Wednesday, as the epidemic was blamed for shattering economic growth in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has predicted an “exponential increase” in infections across west Africa, and warned that Liberia will face thousands of new cases in the coming weeks.

    “We are overwhelmed. The patients keep coming in (huge) numbers. Yesterday we received up to 30 patients,” Sophie Jane, a spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders told AFP at the aid agency’s Ebola unit in Monrovia.

    The WHO upped the death toll on Tuesday to 2,296 out of 4,293 cases in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. Nearly half of all infections had come in the past 21 days, it said.

    Sierra Leone, which has reported some 500 deaths from 1,400 cases, said the crisis had devastated its economy, with growth pared back to single digits for the first time since the country’s mining boom started in 2011.

    Finance Minister Kaifala Samura told reporters in the capital Freetown growth had slowed to seven percent on-year since the country registered its first cases in May.

    “Businesses are shutting down, the foreign exchange rate is no longer in our favour, many airlines are not flying our routes, prices of essential commodities have soared (and) revenue is dropping while Ebola continues to spread,” he said.

    Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries where half the population lives on less than $1.25 (0.97 euros) a day, is still struggling to recover from a ruinous 11-year civil war which ended in 2002.

    But the economy has boomed in recent years, with gross domestic product (GDP) expanding by 15.2 percent in 2012 — the fastest growth in sub-Saharan Africa — driven largely by its rapidly expanding mining sector.

    Economic growth in Sierra Leone hasn’t been confined to single figures since 2011.

    The World Bank had forecast the economy would expand by 14.1 percent this year, up from 13.3 percent in 2013, before the Ebola epidemic hit.

    The bank also predicted the epidemic will wipe a full percentage point off growth in Guinea this year, from 4.5 percent to 3.5 percent.

    The international lender pledged $200 million (149 million euros) in August to help contain the virus and prop up the region’s largely rural economies, which have been devastated as farm workers have fled affected zones.

    Sierra Leone said on Wednesday a nationwide curfew being imposed to uncover hidden Ebola victims could result in its case load increasing by up to 20 percent.

    The government has announced the shutdown, with the population of six million confined to their homes except for essential business for 72 hours starting from September 19.

    More than 20,000 volunteers will go door-to-door to track down people with Ebola and remove dead bodies, taking patients who haven’t gone to hospital into the care of medics.

    The government’s Ebola emergency operation centre said 10 areas of the capital Freetown had been designated as “hot spots” charged with dealing with the expected surge in cases.

    “Isolation centres, including schools equipped with beds, will be set up as we envisage a five percent to 20 percent surge during the exercise, which is aimed at breaking the chain of transmission,” Steven Ngaoja, head of the centre, told a news conference in Freetown.

    Liberia, with 1,200 dead, has borne the brunt of the outbreak, and has run perilously short of space at the few Ebola treatment sites operating.

    Bystanders watched warily on Wednesday as a man turned away by the Doctors Without Borders centre in Monrovia struggled to stay on his feet.

    “I came but they say they have no space. I have strong headache and I have fever. I am trying to get back home,” the man told AFP.

    Meanwhile residents interviewed by AFP described an atmosphere of fear paralysing daily life in the Liberian capital.

    “I am afraid. I don’t know what to do now actually. Where are we going? Are we all going to die? If WHO can say this kind of thing it means we are finished,” said Monrovia resident Kluboh Johnson, 45.

    Liberian Defence Minister Brownie Samukai told a meeting of the UN Security Council on Tuesday that the country was facing “a serious threat to its national existence”.

    Ebola, transmitted through bodily fluids, leads to haemorrhagic fever and — in over half of cases in this epidemic — death. There is no specific treatment regime and no licensed vaccine.

    The WHO has evacuated its second infected medical expert — a doctor who had been working at an Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone.

    Nigeria has recorded 19 infections and eight deaths, but the news was better in Senegal, where authorities said on Wednesday a Guinean student who was the country’s only confirmed case had recovered.

    AFP

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