FREETOWN/MONROVIA (Reuters) - The army blockaded on Thursday rural areas in Sierra Leone that have been hit by the deadly Ebola virus, a senior officer said, after neighbouring Liberia declared a state of emergency to tackle the worst outbreak of the disease on record.
Worried Liberians queued at banks and stocked up on food in markets in the capital Monrovia while others took buses to unaffected parts of the West African country after President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf announced late on Wednesday the actions that will last for 90 days.
The state of emergency allows Liberia's government to curtail civil rights and deploy troops and police to impose quarantines on badly affected communities as it tries to contain the epidemic, which has hit Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria.
"Everyone is afraid this morning," civil servant Cephus Togba told Reuters by telephone. "Big and small they are all panicking. Everyone is stocking up the little they have."
With troops setting up checkpoints outside Monrovia on the way to some of the worst-hit towns, Johnson-Sirleaf said the state of emergency was necessary for "the very survival of our state and for the protection of the lives of our people".
In Washington, D.C., a Liberian official said the country's health care system was collapsing with hospitals closing, medical workers fleeing and people dying of common diseases because they are afraid to seek treatment.
"What is happening is the entire health sector is being devastated by the crisis. It is not only a killer, but it kills those who care for them, and a good number of them are dying,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In Geneva, World Health Organization (WHO) experts were due to hold a second day of meetings to agree on emergency measures to tackle the highly contagious virus and whether to declare an international public health emergency.
Ebola has claimed at least 932 lives, according to the WHO.
After an experimental drug was administered to two U.S. charity workers who were infected in Liberia, Ebola specialists have urged the WHO to offer such drugs to Africans. The U.N. agency has asked medical ethics experts to explore this option next week.
Many in Liberia, a country founded by descendants of freed American slaves and whose capital is named after U.S. President James Monroe, are looking to the United States in this time of crisis as they did during a 1989-2003 civil war that killed nearly a quarter of a million people.
"We need help from America. We need help," said Nancy Poure, a small trader in the suburb of Johnsonville. "This is the beginning of hardship. Ninety days of fear and suffering."
One of the deadliest diseases known to man, Ebola kills up to 90 percent of those infected. Symptoms include internal and external bleeding, diarrhoea and vomiting. Discovered in Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976, near the Ebola river, it is believed to be carried by fruit bats, which are eaten as a delicacy in West Africa.
FEARS FOR LAGOS
Although most cases of Ebola are in the remote border area of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, alarm over the spread of the disease increased last month when a U.S. citizen died in Nigeria after travelling there by plane from Liberia.
A nurse who treated Patrick Sawyer has died in Lagos and at least five other people have been isolated with symptoms, raising fears of an outbreak in the city of 21 million people, Africa's largest metropolis.
A hospital in the capital of Benin is treating a Nigerian man suspected of having Ebola. A sample of his blood has been sent to Senegal for testing, Health Minister Dorothée Gazard said on state television on Thursday.
The case is unconfirmed but Gazard's announcement triggered widespread fear in Cotonou. Many people said they would stock up on food and stop eating at popular roadside food stalls to avoid possible infection.
In Saudi Arabia, a man suspected of contracting Ebola during a recent business trip to Sierra Leone died on Wednesday in Jeddah. Major airlines, such as British Airways and Emirates [EMIRA.UL], have halted flights to affected countries, while many expatriates are leaving.
In eastern Sierra Leone, the worst-hit area of the country, the police chief said security forces had been deployed last night "to establish a complete blockade" of Kenema and Kailahun districts, setting up 16 checkpoints on major roads.
"No vehicles or persons are allowed into or out of the districts," Alfred Karrow-Kamara told Reuters, adding that the measures would last for an initial 50-day period.
Traders who had registered with security agencies would be able to bring in food and medicine. Security forces would mount foot patrols to ensure civilians did not slip past their road-blocks through the bush.
HOSPITAL CLOSED, DOCTORS FLEE
In Liberia, where the death toll is rising fastest, authorities on Wednesday shut a Monrovia hospital after its Cameroonian director died of Ebola and six other staff tested positive, including two nuns and a 75-year-old Spanish missionary.
Miguel Pajares, a Roman Catholic priest, was in stable condition in a Madrid hospital after being repatriated with one of the nuns, Juliana Bohi, on Thursday. They were escorted by police on their arrival in Madrid to the Carlos III hospital, which cleared its sixth floor for their treatment.
The Liberian military deployment, dubbed Operation White Shield, is expected to be fully in place by Friday, officials said. In the chaotic, ocean-front capital, residents greeted the announcement with fear and concern, though the precise details of the emergency powers have not yet been made public.
Liberian authorities have said they are willing to authorise in-country clinical trials of experimental drugs. However, U.S. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he lacked enough information to approve their use, adding that Ebola could be controlled with a strong public health response.
Lacking the medical equipment and training to handle the disease, some 32 health workers have died of Ebola in Liberia and many sick people were going untreated after doctors deserted their posts, Johnson-Sirleaf said.
The outbreak is costing its war-scarred economy millions of dollars as airlines cancel flights.
Schools across the country were shut last week and non-essential government workers were sent home.
Ebola has now been reported in eight of Liberia's 15 counties and the only two treatment centres, located in northern Lofa County and Montserrado County near Monrovia, are unable to cope. In other areas, patients are being kept in improvised holding centres, aid workers have said.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn in Dakar, Samuel Elijah in Cotonou and Alphonso Toweh in Washington, D.C.; Writing by Daniel Flynn and Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Peter Millership, Robin Pomeroy, Toni Reinhold)