FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Health teams that went door-to-door in Sierra Leone found 130 confirmed cases of Ebola during a nationwide shutdown to slow the spread of the disease, an official said Tuesday, as authorities consider repeating the unprecedented exercise.
About 70 more suspected cases are still being tested, said Deputy Minister for Political and Public Affairs Karamoh Kabba. In addition, 92 bodies were found during the three-day campaign, during which teams handed out information about the disease to more than 1 million households. It is not yet clear how many of those bodies were positive for Ebola.
The Ebola outbreak sweeping West Africa is believed to have sickened more than 5,800 people and killed more than 2,800, primarily Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The World Health Organization has warned that even those high tolls are likely underestimates. The unprecedented size and sweep of the outbreak has led to dramatic measures, like the cordoning off of entire communities in Liberia and the shutdown in Sierra Leone.
The outbreak has overwhelmed already weak health systems: A shortage of ambulances has stranded many of the sick at home, others have been turned away from teeming treatment centers and bodies have sometimes not been buried for days. Kabba said Tuesday that there are still delays in collecting bodies in Sierra Leone.
In recent weeks, promises by Western countries to send in more health workers and build more treatment centers have been made and Sierra Leone said it prepared temporary treatment centers for whatever cases it found during the lockdown.
Though many experts initially raised doubts about the lockdown's ability to slow the outbreak, saying it would be hard to keep the country's 6 million people at home, the government has hailed it as a success, and it now considering doing it again.
President Ernest Bai Koroma said on the radio Tuesday that he is "mainly satisfied with the whole process, as it has helped reaching more homes and bringing to the fore many sick people and corpses."
The committee coordinating the Ebola response is still analyzing the results of the lockdown and Koroma said he will listen to the committee's advice about whether or not to have another lockdown.
Dr. David Heymann, an Ebola expert, said reaching so many people with information about Ebola could be crucial to stopping the outbreak. Six months into the world's largest-ever Ebola outbreak, confusion, fear and misunderstanding about the disease is still hindering efforts to control it.
"It's important for African governments to innovate and find new ways of getting messages out to the people," said Heymann, professor of infectious diseases at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "(The lockdown) seemed to pass without violence and it went against much of international advice. Maybe it's the innovation that will make a difference."
In a sign of how much mistrust and misunderstanding still reigns, teams that were going door-to-door in Sierra Leone reported hearing rumors that the soap they were handing out was poisonous. People sent to treat patients, disinfect homes or provide information about Ebola have come under attack in some communities because of fears they are spreading the disease. One such team was killed last week in Guinea by villagers.
If more isn't done to control the outbreak, the case toll could hit 21,000 in the next six weeks, WHO predicted in a study published Tuesday. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also released its own, more dire predictions Tuesday, based partly on the assumption that Ebola cases are being underreported. The report says there could be up to 21,000 reported and unreported cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone alone by the end of this month and that cases could balloon to as many as 1.4 million by mid-January.
Experts caution that predictions don't take into account response efforts, which have ramped up in recent weeks.
Ebola, which is transmitted through bodily fluids, has no licensed treatment or vaccine. But some experimental drugs have been tried out in this outbreak. There are now plans for more organized trials in West Africa, possibly as soon as November.
Cheng reported from London. AP medical writer Mike Stobbe in New York contributed to this report.