Sierra Leone’s largest newspaper, the Awareness Times, is reporting with alarm that at least 1,028 Ebola patients appear to be missing in the country, as official Ministry of Health statistics account for a smaller number of combined victims and survivors of the disease than the total number of registered cases.
The Awareness Times report notes that the Ministry of Health has confirmed 2,000 cases of Ebola in the country. Its official statistics note that 540 have died, while 432 are classified as survivors. That leaves 1,042 unaccounted for cases.
The report follows up on a New York Times piece in which a Western diplomat is quoted as saying that official statistics in Sierra Leone are highly untrustworthy. According to the Times, those numbers are believed to be “largely inaccurate,” rendering them borderline useless. Said the diplomat: “Even a 2-year-old child can look at them and see they don’t add up.” The Times notes that Sierra Leone has responded to the crisis largely by quarantining large areas– nearly all 14 districts in Sierra Leone are at least partially quarantined, and it is believed that between one and two million people are being kept locked down due to this measure.
The Awareness Times did the math to prove the inaccuracy of the numbers, and the response they received from the Ministry of Health did little to assuage the concern that the government has little control over the situation. In a statement highlighting the convoluted relationships between press and state in Sierra Leone, Dr. Sylvia Blyden– both Special Executive Assistant to President Ernest Koroma and founder of the Awareness Times— issued a statement to her own newspaper:
The fact is that a few of these unaccounted-for numbers are currently admitted in Ebola centers but I can categorically state today that the vast majority of the [over] 1,000 patients are already DEAD and lying in their graves. Yes, they are dead and buried! Hundreds of them! :-( May their souls rest in peace.
She goes on to blame the erroneous numbers on “a flight of common sense” on the part of the government, and adds that many of those unaccounted for are those who did not die in medical facilities, but rather died in their homes, and may continue to remain in their homes undisturbed given the fear of touching the body of a person with Ebola.
The organization and collection of Ebola victims has been a significant hurdle in containing the disease, which has begun to spread in a more accelerated manner in Freetown, the capital. The New York Times reports that according to the World Health Organization, 597 people have died in Sierra Leone of Ebola, while 1,940 have been infected. This is one third of the total deaths in the four African countries that have experienced Ebola deaths (the other three are Guinea, Liberia, and Nigeria).
The spread is believe to have accelerated because of an inability on the part of the government to keep Ebola infected bodies away from those who had yet to come into contact with the virus. As individuals tried to move and bury their dead without adequate protection, they soon became contaminated. To attempt to reduce this threat, the government ordered the nation to shut down for three days this month, in which no one could leave their homes without special permission. In the process, they found 300 unaccounted-for bodies— non-negligible progress, but certainly insufficient given the prodigious number of unaccounted for Ebola patients that remain.