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Desperate Sierra Leone backs home care for Ebola patients

A Liberian burial squad carried the body of an Ebola victim in Marshall, Margini county, Liberia.
A Liberian burial squad carried the body of an Ebola victim in Marshall, Margini county, Liberia. EPA/AHMED JALLANZO

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Acknowledging a major “defeat” in the fight against Ebola, international health officials battling the epidemic in Sierra Leone approved plans Friday to help families treat patients at home, recognizing that they are overwhelmed and have little chance of getting enough treatment beds in place quickly to meet the surging need.

The decision signifies a significant shift in the struggle against the rampaging disease. Officials said they would begin distributing painkillers, rehydrating solution, and gloves to hundreds of Ebola-afflicted households in Sierra Leone, contending that the aid arriving here was not fast or extensive enough to keep up with an outbreak that doubles in size every month or so.

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“It’s basically admitting defeat,” said Dr. Peter H. Kilmarx, the leader of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s team in Sierra Leone. “There are hundreds of people with Ebola that we are not able to bring into a facility.”

The news from Sierra Leone came in tandem with a dire report and warning.

The total number of deaths attributed to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has risen to 4,033, the World Health Organization said Friday, and the UN’s top envoy on the medical crisis said the total number of cases is probably doubling every three-to-four weeks.

All but nine of the deaths were in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. Eight of the rest were in Nigeria, with one patient dying in the United States.

As of the end of Wednesday, a total of 8,399 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases of Ebola had been reported from seven countries, WHO said. The three worst-affected countries accounted for 8,376 cases.

David Nabarro, the UN special envoy for Ebola, told the General Assembly on Friday the international response to the outbreak needs to be 20 times greater than it was at the beginning of October.

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He warned that without the mass global mobilization to support the affected countries in West Africa, ‘‘it will be impossible to get this disease quickly under control, and the world will have to live with the Ebola virus forever.’’

In Sierra Leone, the effort to prop up a family’s attempts to care for ailing relatives at home does not mean that officials have abandoned plans to increase the number of beds in hospitals and clinics.

But before the beds can be added and doctors can be trained, experts warn, the epidemic will continue to grow.

CDC officials acknowledged that the risks of dying from the disease and passing it to loved ones at home were serious under the new policy. “You push some Tylenol to them and back away,” Kilmarx said, describing its obvious limits.

But many patients with Ebola are already dying slowly at home, untreated and with no place to go.

So officials said there was little choice but to try the new approach as well.

In Monrovia on Friday, Liberian lawmakers rejected a proposal to grant President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf the power to further restrict movement and public gatherings and to confiscate property in the fight against Ebola.

One legislator said such a law would have turned Liberia into a police state.

The defeat of Sirleaf’s proposal in the House of Representatives came as US military forces worked on building a 25-bed hospital for stricken health workers in Liberia, the country that has been hit hardest by the epidemic.

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Rear Admiral Scott Giberson, the acting US deputy surgeon general, said the facility would be ready within weeks.

The US military has said it will oversee construction of 17 treatment units with 100 beds each.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.