The Ebola outbreak ravaging Western Africa has now claimed 729 lives, according to the World Health Organization, prompting panicked governments to shut down schools and keep contaminated villages on lockdown.
The Associated Press reports that the WHO announcement is based on a significant increase in the number of deaths recently. Fifty-seven new deaths have been reported, mostly in Liberia and Guinea. Nigeria has yet to see any further contamination beyond Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian official who boarded a flight to Lagos and died in the Nigerian metropolis of the viral disease.
As Liberia has experienced the largest increase in cases of Ebola infection and death, despite Guinea being the ground zero for the outbreak, its government is taking some of the strongest measures against spread of the disease. After having shut down all but three of its borders with Sierra Leone and Guinea earlier this week, the government announced on Wednesday that it would close schools and consider quarantining communities where the outbreak has affected a significant number of people.
The government of Sierra Leone, meanwhile, has declared a state of emergency after the loss of its top Ebola doctor and researcher, Sheikh Humarr Khan, to the disease. Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma announced this week that he would meet with the leaders of Liberia and Guinea on Friday to discuss how best to contain the tragic situation. “Sierra Leone is in a great fight … Failure is not an option… Extraordinary challenges require extraordinary measures,” he said. Koroma’s trip to Conakry, Guinea, where the heads of state will meet, will make it impossible for him to travel to Washington, D.C. for a meeting of African leaders.
Given the high risk of contamination for medical personnel, organizations providing humanitarian aid in the area are beginning to withdraw individuals, particularly after the contamination of two American aid workers. America’s Peace Corps announced that they were withdrawing more than 300 individuals working for them in the three countries, and are currently keeping two workers who came into contact with someone who later contracted Ebola under observation. Organizations like SIM USA and Samaritan’s Purse, which has had one employee contract Ebola, are also considering withdrawing much of their personnel in the region.
Aid workers have found it extremely difficult to help and treat West Africans facing Ebola. In many instances, Westerners are treated with suspicion, with many believing that it is the humanitarian workers who are spreading the Ebola in the first place. Aid workers have been targets of violent mob attacks from young villagers who fear the disease. Others simply distrust Western medicine, and reject medical help to turn to traditional herbalists and magic purveyors, instead.