October 27, 2014 / 11:38 PM / 5 years ago

Safe Ebola burials in Sierra Leone a bright spot for U.S. envoy

FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown has tripled the number of safe burials of Ebola victims in the past week and the challenge now is to expand that coordination across the country, U.S. envoy Samantha Power, said on Monday during a visit to West Africa.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power speaks to members of the Security Council during a meeting on the Ebola crisis at U.N. headquarters in New York, September 18, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Nearly 5,000 people have died in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia during the worst outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever on record with many people contracting the disease from touching the highly infectious dead bodies of Ebola victims. Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids of an infected person and is not airborne.

Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is briefly visiting the three neighboring countries to see how the world is failing in its response to the epidemic. She described the turnaround in safe burials in Freetown as “encouraging.”

“Seeing them turn a 30 percent safe burial rate in Freetown into a 98 percent safe burial rate is a tribute to a combination of top down presidential leadership, finally the kind of coordination that’s been needed throughout and a willingness on the part of Sierra Leoneans, notwithstanding the stigma, to step forward and be part of burial teams,” Power told Reuters.

People in Freetown phone a special number to report someone who could be infected with Ebola or for a body to be taken away. Special burial teams are deployed and the aim is to have the bodies removed within 24 hours of the call being received.

British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Peter West, said data collected had shown that nearly 80 percent of infections in the Western Area region, which covers Freetown, were from touching dead bodies of Ebola victims.

Britain has taken the lead in supporting the Sierra Leone government in tackling Ebola and has so far committed several hundred million dollars, some of which is being used to build some 600 treatment beds, 200 community care centers, train health care workers and burial teams and boost the lab capacity.

Donal Brown, head of the British Ebola Task Force in Sierra Leone, said increasing safe burials was an immediate priority.

“The two largest areas for transmission are patients showing symptoms, so early isolation, and burials. If you can get on top of those two you can get on top of things,” he told Reuters.

Power, who will visit Liberia on Tuesday, said increasing the number of safe burials across the country could “make a significant dent in the curve” of infection, but it was also important to ensure there would be enough beds to isolate and treat infected people.

“But because it’s going to take time to do that ... you certainly can’t rely on that and even if tomorrow you could get safe burial everywhere you still have people who are crying out for treatment,” Power said.

“Any sense of a choice is a false choice and there are two features of the response that are imperative, all hands on deck, all of the above,” she said.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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