Liberia's Ebola move evokes 'plague villages'
TO TRY to control the Ebola epidemic spreading through West Africa, Liberia has quarantined remote villages at the epicentre of the virus, evoking the "plague villages" of mediaeval Europe that were shut off from the outside world.
With little food and medical supplies getting in, many abandoned villagers face a stark choice: Stay where they are and risk death, or skip quarantine - and spread the infection in a country ill-equipped to cope.
Ebola has killed at least 1,145 people in four African nations, but in the week through Aug 13, Liberia's Lofa county recorded more new cases than anywhere else, with 124 new Ebola cases and 60 deaths.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Liberian officials have warned that, with little access by health-care workers to the remote areas hidden deep in rugged jungle zones, the actual toll may be far higher.
In the ramshackle coastal capital of Monrovia, which still bears the scars of a brutal 14-year civil war that ended in 2003, officials say controlling the situation in Lofa is crucial in overcoming the country's biggest crisis since the conflict.
With her country under threat, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has imposed emergency measures that include the community quarantine and a "cordon sanitaire" - a system of medical roadblocks to prevent the infection from reaching cities - widely used against the Black Death in mediaeval times.
Troops have been deployed under Operation White Shield to stop people from abandoning homes and infecting others in a country where the majority of cases remain at large, either because clinics are full or because they are scared of hospitals, which are regarded as "death traps".
A crowd attacked a makeshift Ebola quarantine centre in Monrovia on Saturday, throwing stones and looting equipment and food, and even removing patients from the building, according to a health worker.
"There has to be concern that people in quarantined areas are left to fend for themselves," said Mike Noyes, head of humanitarian response at ActionAid UK. "Who is going to be the police officer who goes to these places? There's a risk that these places become plague villages."
The Ebola virus, which had not been detected in poverty-racked West Africa before, is carried by jungle mammals like fruit bats. It is thought to have been transmitted to the human population via bush meat as early as December in remote south-eastern Guinea.
The WHO declared Ebola an international health emergency - only the third time in its 66-year history that it has taken this step.
Neighbours Guinea and Sierra Leone have set up checkpoints in Gueckedou and Kenema, creating a cross-border quarantine zone of roughly 20,000 sq km. Called the "unified sector", it is about the size of Wales.
Within this massive area, Liberian Information Minister Lewis Brown described more intense quarantine measures in Lofa, with the ring-fencing of areas where up to 70 per cent of people are infected.
"Access to these hot spots is now cut off except for medical workers," he said in a recent interview.