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End to Ebola in sight in Sierra Leone as new cases sharply fall

Aid workers have also reported success in changing behaviour in rural areas.

FILE: A Guinea health worker wearing a protective suit poses at an Ebola Donka treatment centre in Conakry on 8 December, 2014. Picture: AFP.

FREETOWN - A military-style operation to fight Ebola in Sierra Leone has helped to dramatically reduce new cases, in what health officials say is a major step towards defeating the deadly disease.

Since it was launched about one month ago, the operation has doubled the number of ambulances for patients in the densely populated west of Sierra Leone, the worst-affected country where more than 3,000 people have died.

Police halt vehicles at checkpoints in the tumble-down streets to check temperatures, while posters proclaim in the local Krio language: "Togeda we go stop Ebola".

Aid workers also report success in changing behaviour in rural areas, notably discouraging people from burial rituals involving direct contact with the dead - a major source of transmission.

As a result, transmission of the haemorrhagic fever has slowed sharply in the West African country, which has recorded more than 10,000 cases since May. There were just 184 new cases in the week to 11 January - the lowest in five months.

More than half of beds in treatment centres across Sierra Leone are now empty - a stark contrast from a peak in November when centres in Freetown overflowed, patients waited days for ambulances and bodies were unburied, or interred secretly in backyards.

This has prompted President Ernest Bai Koroma to say he believes his government - helped by the nearly 800 British soldiers and more than $450 million in foreign aid - can stamp out Sierra Leone's last case by the end of March.

Some health specialists and aid workers are more cautious.

They hope the success in Freetown and its environs is a big step towards beating the epidemic - which has killed more than 8,400 people - now that Liberia and Guinea also appear to have stabilised, but are wary of calling the end of an outbreak that last April seemed to wane in Guinea, only to return ferociously.

"The Sierra Leone problem is turning the corner. I think we'll get close to zero there by March so long as there are no surprises," said Philippe Maughan, senior Ebola operations manager at ECHO, the European Commission's humanitarian aid branch.

"But ... there will be cases popping up here and there over the next six months to a year and we'll need to snuff them out."

'EBOLA EVANGELIST'

The National Ebola Response Centre (NERC), a new military-style body chaired by Koroma, launched "Operation Western Area Surge" last month in Sierra Leone - a country of six million people where the main industries are fishing and farming but which has huge, largely untapped, mineral reserves.

A jingle is played repeatedly over loud speakers at the command centre: "Ebola go, we don't tire!"

Freetown's main Kingtom cemetery has been expanded and highly contagious bodies are buried in deep graves within 24 hours according to strict protocols to prevent transmission.

Burials are important in West African culture, with mourners often touching the corpse in intimate, spiritual farewells to their loved ones. Ebola spreads via contact with bodily fluids of infected people or with corpses of someone killed by it.

The Ebola centre has noted pockets of resistance in the capital, which officials attribute to mistrust of authorities due to the weak response before the surge.

Aid workers say overcoming misperceptions and changing behaviour was critical to breaking transmission chains in rural hotspots like Kailahun, where case counts have fallen to zero. The same must now happen in Freetown, they say.