Sierra Leone becomes focus of Ebola programs

DAKAR, Senegal — Sierra Leone will soon receive a dramatic increase in desperately needed Ebola treatment beds, but it’s still not clear who will staff them, according to the top United Nations official in the fight against the disease.

Ebola has made more than 16,000 people ill, of whom nearly 7,000 have died, the World Health Organization reported on Friday.

Sierra Leone is now bearing the brunt of the eight-month-old outbreak. In the other hard-hit countries, Liberia and Guinea, WHO says, infection rates are stabilizing or declining, but in Sierra Leone, they’re soaring. The country has been reporting 400 to 500 new cases each week for several weeks.


Those cases are concentrated in and around the capital, Freetown, and the northern Port Loko district, which together account for about 65 percent of the country’s new infections, Anthony Banbury, head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, said in an interview.

‘‘The critical gap right now in those locations are beds. It’s as simple as that: We need more beds,’’ said Banbury, who spoke by phone from Ghana, where the mission is based. Only about 350 of 1,200 promised treatment beds are being used, according to WHO figures.

In Maryland on Saturday, a funeral Mass was held for a surgeon who died of Ebola after treating patients in his native Sierra Leone.

Dr. Martin Salia, 44, died earlier this month at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, and his body was cremated. The funeral was held at his family’s parish in Landover Hills, Md. Salia is survived by his wife and two sons.

Salia, who was a permanent US resident, didn’t receive aggressive treatment until nearly two weeks after he developed Ebola symptoms. Experts said the delay probably made it impossible to save his life.

Five more British-built treatment centers will open next month in Sierra Leone, tripling the current bed capacity, according to the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development. One near the capital is already open.


Still, more beds alone are not enough.

‘‘We’re concerned that the partners who have signed up to operate the beds won’t be able to operate them in the numbers and timeline really required,’’ Banbury said. He is flying to Sierra Leone to address that problem.

The effort in Sierra Leone is also hindered by unsafe burials. The bodies of Ebola victims are extremely contagious, and the touching of dead bodies might be responsible for as much as 50 percent of all new cases, Banbury said.

Cultural practices call for dead bodies to be washed, and women’s bodies are supposed to be prepared by other women. But with very few women on burial teams, Banbury said, it appears that untrained people are washing the bodies of women before they call for them to be taken away.

Sierra Leone also needs more burial teams: WHO numbers show only about a quarter of the teams the country needs are trained and working.

The United Nations had hoped that by now the end of the outbreak would be in sight: Two months ago, it said it wanted to have 70 percent of Ebola cases isolated and 70 percent of dead bodies being safely buried as of Dec. 1.

That would have drastically reduced two main sources of the bodily fluids that spread the infection through contact — sick people and corpses.


World Health Organization numbers show they are significantly short of the goal, and Banbury acknowledged that the overall goal would not be met. He stressed that tremendous progress has been made and many places throughout the region would meet or exceed the targets set.

‘‘As long as there’s one person with Ebola out there, then the crisis isn’t over and Ebola is a risk to the people of that community, that country, this sub-region, this continent, this world,’’ he said. ‘‘Our goal and what we will achieve is getting it down to zero, but there’s no doubt it’s going to be a long, hard fight.’’