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Sierra Leone burial crews end strike

Volunteers in protective suit burry the body of a person who died from Ebola inSierra Leone on Oct. 7.Florian Plaucheur/AFP/Getty Images

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Burial teams went back to work one day after organizing a strike over pay and abandoning the dead bodies of Ebola victims in Sierra Leone's capital.

In neighboring Liberia, however, health workers said Wednesday that they planned to strike if their demands for more money and safety equipment were not met this week.

The expressions of frustration by beleaguered West African health workers came as Spanish officials investigated whether a nursing assistant with Ebola had become infected by touching her face with tainted protective gloves. The case of Teresa Romero is the first known incident of someone contracting the deadly disease outside the West African outbreak zone.


The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corp. reported this week that the highly contagious dead bodies of Ebola victims were being left in homes and on the streets of Freetown because of the strike by burial teams.

But in a radio interview Wednesday morning, Sierra Leone's deputy health minister, Madina Rahman, said the strike had been ''resolved.'' Later in the day, a team could be seen loading bodies outside a government hospital for burial in the west of Freetown. The team's leader declined to be interviewed, but said they had been promised hazard pay by the end of the day.

Rahman said the dispute centered on a one-week backlog for hazard pay that had been deposited in the bank but was not given to burial teams.

Health ministry spokesman Sidie Yahya Tunis described the situation as ''very embarrassing.'' The government was already facing criticism over a shipping container filled with medical gear and mattresses that has been held up at the port for more than a month.

In Liberia, health workers are demanding monthly salaries of $700 and personal protective equipment, said George Williams, secretary general of the National Health Workers Association.


''We give the government up to the weekend to address all these or else we will stop work,'' Williams said.

The average health worker's monthly pay is below $500, even for the most highly trained staff. Finance Minister Amara Konneh has defended the compensation for health workers, saying last week that it was more than Sierra Leone and Guinea were offering.

Health workers are especially vulnerable to Ebola, which is spread by contact with the bodily fluids of infected people.

The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia said Wednesday that a second member of its international medical team had contracted Ebola; the first died on Sept. 25.

The mission is identifying and isolating others who may have been exposed and reviewing procedures to mitigate risk, said Karin Landgren, special representative of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

More than 3,400 people have died this year in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, with the heaviest tolls in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

In Spain, the case involving the infected nursing assistant has highlighted the dangers that Ebola poses for health workers, even in sophisticated medical centers in Europe.

Dr. German Ramirez of the Carlos III hospital in Madrid said Romero remembers she once touched her face with protective gloves after leaving a patient's quarantine room.

''It appears we have found the origin'' of Romero's infection, Ramirez said, but he cautioned the investigation was not complete.

Romero was said to be in stable condition Wednesday.

Health authorities in Madrid have faced accusations of not following protocol and poorly preparing health care workers for dealing with Ebola.