Tag: West Africa

Mali battles Ebola outbreak as African death toll passes 5 000

Mali is scrambling to prevent a major Ebola epidemic after the deaths of an Islamic cleric and a nurse, as the official death toll in the worst ever epidemic of the virus passed 5 000.

The two deaths in Mali have dashed optimism that the country was free of the highly-infectious pathogen and caused alarm in the capital Bamako, where the imam was washed by mourners at a mosque after his death.

It came as the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced on Wednesday that the outbreak – almost entirely confined to west Africa – had passed a gruesome landmark, with 5 160 deaths from around 14 000 cases since Ebola emerged in Guinea in December.

The WHO and aid organisations have frequently pointed out that the real count of cases and deaths could be much higher.

In Mali, the latest country to see infections, the clinic where the imam died has been quarantined, with around 30 people trapped inside including medical staff, patients and 15 African soldiers from the United Nations mission in Mali.

Police officers stand in front of the quarantined Pasteur clinic in Bamako on November 12 2014. (Pic: AFP)
Police officers stand in front of the quarantined Pasteur clinic in Bamako on November 12 2014. (Pic: AFP)

The nurse who died of Ebola had treated the imam at Bamako’s Pasteur clinic.

Teams of investigators are tracing health workers, and scouring the capital and the imam’s home district in northeastern Guinea for scores of people who could have been exposed.

The deaths have raised fears of widespread contamination as they were unrelated to Mali’s only other confirmed fatality, a two-year-old girl who had also arrived from Guinea in October.

A doctor at the Pasteur clinic is thought to have contracted the virus and is under observation outside the capital, the clinic said.

A friend who visited the imam has also died of probable Ebola, the WHO said.

Traditional burial sites blamed
Mali’s health ministry called for calm, as it led a huge cross-border operation to stem the contagion.

The WHO said the 70-year-old cleric, named as Goika Sekou from a village on Guinea’s porous border with Mali, fell sick and was transferred via several treatment centres to the Pasteur clinic.

Multiple lab tests were performed, the WHO said, but crucially not for Ebola, and he died of kidney failure on October 27.

He had travelled to Bamako by car with four family members – all of whom have since got sick or died at home in Guinea.

The imam’s body was transported to a mosque in Bamako for a ritual washing ceremony before being returned to Guinea for burial.

Traditional African funeral rites are considered one of the main causes of Ebola spreading, as it is transmitted through bodily fluids and those who have recently died are particularly infectious.

The nurse who died treating Sekou, identified by family as 25-year-old Saliou Diarra, was the first Malian resident to be confirmed as an Ebola victim.

 70 perecent death rate
The virus is estimated to have killed around 70 percent of its victims, often shutting down their organs and causing unstoppable bleeding.

Ebola emerged in Guinea in December, spreading to neighbouring Liberia and then Sierra Leone, infecting at least 13 000 people.

Cases are “still skyrocketing” in western Sierra Leone, according to the WHO, although Liberia says it has seen a drop in new cases from a daily peak of more than 500 in September to around 50.

The US military has scaled back plans for its mission in Liberia to fight the Ebola outbreak, and will deploy a maximum of 3 000 troops instead of 4 000, said General Gary Valesky, head of the American military contingent in the country.

But the move did not signal less concern about the threat posed by the epidemic, he told reporters in a telephone conference.

Britain’s foreign secretary Philip Hammond announced plans Wednesday for hundreds of Ebola treatment beds in Sierra Leone within weeks, admitting the global response had been too slow as he visited the former colony.

The Ebola outbreak has also hit the world of sport.

Morocco were stripped of the right to host the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations after insisting on a postponement.

Angola had emerged as the frontrunner to replace Morocco as eleventh hour hosts but pulled out of the running on Wednesday.

Organisers the Confederation of African Football are due to announce the replacement hosts in the next few days.

In New Zealand, police on Thursday ruled out the presence of the deadly virus in one of three mystery vials discovered in mailboxes this week.

Tests on the two other vials have not yet been completed.

The vials were contained in suspicious packages sent to the US embassy and parliament buildings in the capital Wellington and to a newspaper office in Auckland.

Meanwhile in the US, nurses demonstrated outside the White House on Wednesday saying they are woefully ill-prepared to handle an Ebola case.

They were among thousands of health care workers taking part in protests in the United States and overseas amid fears the Ebola epidemic might spread beyond west Africa.

Two nurses are among the nine confirmed Ebola cases that have been treated in the United States.

Burkina Faso leader refuses to quit after day of violent protests

Anti-government protesters set fire to the Parliament building in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso on October 30 2014. (Pic: AFP)
Anti-government protesters set fire to the Parliament building in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso on October 30 2014. (Pic: Reuters)

Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore on Thursday refused to give up power but called off a state of emergency imposed after a violent uprising against his 27-year rule that saw Parliament set ablaze.

Opposition figures said around 30 people had been killed and 100 injured as tens of thousands took to the streets in protest against plans to allow Compaore to extend his long reign.

Hundreds stormed Parliament and other public buildings including the national television headquarters in the capital Ougadougou, ransacking offices and setting fire to cars despite a heavy police and army presence.

Compaore initially called a state of emergency but appeared on television just a few hours later to say it had been called off.

“I have heard the message,” the president said.

But he refused to step down, saying instead that he was “available” for talks on “a period of transition after which power will be transferred to a democratically elected president”.

It remained unclear on Thursday night who was in charge of the country.

Earlier in the day, the army had announced it was seizing power and putting in place a transitional government.

It imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and pledged to restore constitutional order within 12 months.

The communique, read out by an officer, was signed by the army chief of staff Nabere Honore Traore.

Departure ‘non-negotiable’
A leading opposition member, Benewende Sankara, described the army’s move as a “coup”. He also said protesters would accept nothing less than the president’s immediate resignation.

Compaore “is again in the process of duping the people,” said Sankara. “We have been saying for a long time that he must hand in his resignation. His departure is non-negotiable.”

Sankara and another opposition leader gave the death toll from the violence as “around 30”. AFP was only able to confirm four deaths and six seriously injured, based partly on reports from the capital’s main hospital.

The United States said it was “deeply concerned” about the crisis in the west African nation and criticised Compaore’s attempts to alter the constitution to extend his rule. Former colonial power France appealed for calm and said it “deplored” the violence.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon dispatched a special envoy to help restore calm and the European Union called for an end to the violence.

A protester carries rocks in front of a burning roadblock in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. (Pic: AFP)
A protester carries rocks in front of a burning roadblock in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. (Pic: Reuters)

Many of the tens of thousands massed on the streets of the capital called for a retired general and former defence minister, Kouame Lougue, to take control, shouting “Lougue in power!”

There were reports that army chief Traore had met with Lougue earlier in the day to discuss the crisis.

The chaos erupted this week as lawmakers prepared to vote on legislation that would allow 63-year-old Compaore – who himself took power in a 1987 coup – to contest elections in November 2015.

The lawmakers called off the vote, but not before Burkina Faso plunged into its worst crisis since a wave of mutinies shook the country in 2011.

Black smoke billowed out of smashed windows at the parliament building on Thursday, where several offices were ravaged by flames.

Several hundred protesters also broke into the headquarters of the national television station RTB, pillaging equipment and smashing cars, AFP correspondents said.

The ruling party headquarters in the second city of Bobo Dioulasso and the city hall were also torched by protesters, witnesses said.

Compaore’s bid to cling to power has angered many, particularly young people, in a country where 60 percent of the population of almost 17 million is under 25.

Many have spent their entire lives under the leadership of one man and, with Burkina Faso stagnating at 183rd out of 186 countries on the UN human development index, many have had enough.

The situation is being closely watched across Africa where at least four heads of state are preparing or considering similar changes to stay in power, from Burundi to Benin.

Compaore was only 36 when he seized power in the coup in which his former friend and one of Africa’s most loved leaders, Thomas Sankara, was ousted and assassinated.

He has remained in power since, re-elected president four times since 1991 – to two seven-year and two five-year terms.

Known in colonial times as Upper Volta, the landlocked country became independent from France in 1960 and its name was changed to Burkina Faso (“the land of upright men”) in 1984.

From soap to song: How Ivorians are using social media to tackle Ebola

Since the Ebola epidemic began in Guinea last December, the virus has claimed close to 4 000 lives and infected more than 7 000 people, most of them in West Africa. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have been hardest hit, with lock-downs imposed and armed forces called on in an attempt to stop the spread of the epidemic.

In neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, which has not been affected yet, bloggers are proactively using social media in a bid to keep Ebola at bay.

“It is important to have a good hygiene”, a young woman in a YouTube video explains,” so I let myself lather against Ebola now!” She takes a deep breath and presses her lips together. Next to her, a man lifts a large plastic bucket. In one fell, he pours the frothy content over her head. Soaking wet and laughing, she lets out a squeaky cry.

Edith Brou, a popular Ivorian blogger, started the “Mousser contre Ebola” (Lathering against Ebola) campaign to raise awareness about the virus. Inspired by the very successful Ice Bucket Challenge, she initiated a local version on YouTube: with soap instead of ice and hygiene items instead of monetary donations. The foam shower’s principle is simple: by accepting the challenge, you must give three soaps or hand sanitizers to friends. If a person rejects the nomination, he is ‘punished’ by having to distribute nine hygiene items to people around him.

Since the campaign started in mid-August, it has triggered a veritable wave of lather on social media under the hashtag “#MousserContreEbola”. In a swimming pool, a bathtub, or on a roof – more than 50 people already have taken up the challenge. On her website MoussercontreEbola, Brou collects videos and photos from participants and provides important information about the world’s worst Ebola epidemic.

Edith Brou, blogger and founder of the Lather against Ebola challenge. (Pic: Supplied)
Edith Brou, blogger and founder of the Lather against Ebola challenge. (Pic: Supplied)

Of course, she also received negative responses to the challenge, Brou says. Some people thought it “useless or ridiculous”. But as many people in the country do not believe that Ebola really exists, it is particularly important to raise awareness. Despite the government’s prohibition, some Ivorians still continue eating bush meat. Others trust in God to protect them or repress their fear from the virus with humour. Côte d’Ivoire really is very close to the danger, Brou says. “The virus can arrive at any time.”

Another Ivorian blogger, Florent Youzan, has created a free interactive map for the prevention of Ebola. On it, “proven cases” in Guinea and Liberia, two neighbouring counties that are severely affected by Ebola, are featured.  An orange marker is in the middle of the map: “On Saturday, August 30 2014, a suspected case of Ebola struck fear into Yamoussoukro, the political capital of Côte d’Ivoire.”

Youzan’s map also tells users about sensitisation and prevention activities organised in the country. In the village Kandopleu, in the west of Côte d’Ivoire, the government simulated an Ebola case to practise for an emergency. The Red Cross sensitised the population in the regions near the borders with Guinea and Liberia.

Stop Ebola, a reggae-style song, has been doing the rounds on social networks for several weeks.

A young man dances in the streets of Abidjan and sings, “You get very high fever, fatigue, headaches, nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting. You cough heavily and you start bleeding. Watch out brother, this virus is dangerous!” Taking an official communication by the government,  journalist and blogger Israël Guébo rewrote the text into simple, accessible French and incorporated reggae music for a catchy tune.

“Every citizen should contribute to sensitisation against Ebola”, he says. He sees music as a simple and efficient way to reach a wide range of many people. A mobile operator already offers Stop Ebola already as a ringtone. Alongside the official version in French, Guébo published versions of the song with German and English subtitles. His goal is to have the song heard across all bars, restaurants and taxis “to delay to a maximum” the arrival of the virus in Côte d’Ivoire.

Tanja Schreiner studied journalism and communication in Germany and France. She has lived in several African countries and currently works in Côte d’Ivoire. Connect with her on Twitter.

Travelling with the extra baggage of Ebola stigma

A woman passes a sign posted in an awareness campaign against the spread of Ebola in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Pic: Reuters)
A woman passes a sign posted in an awareness campaign against the spread of Ebola in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Pic: Reuters)

Upon landing at Kigali International Airport last month, I peered out the window and my eyes caught sight of an official clad in protective gear standing just under a sign that read ‘Arrivals: Ebola testing’. If I had ever been removed from what has been going on in my beloved Sierra Leone, it ended in this moment. Before my flight from Washington, I was informed that we would be screened upon arrival. And there it was. Even from the window of seat 16K, I could see the measures that had been put in place to protect the citizens of the country.

After disembarking the plane and entering the airport, we stood in a queue for about 10 minutes. I noticed a form that other passengers were filling out. I asked the young lady behind me if it was for everyone. She responded “Yes,” so I moved to the counter to complete mine. It asked: “In the past three weeks have you been in the following countries: Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal?” At that moment I felt a sense of solidarity first with Sierra Leoneans near and far, because sadly this too has become one of our realities. I also felt isolation because my entry, identity and existence were being sanctioned and questioned by a customs form. A customs form at which other travellers would not cringe; they don’t have blood from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Even if I don’t explain to you what happened next, you would still be able to surmise what would occur naturally as a Sierra Leonean-American woman with Sierra Leonean entry and departure stamps in her US passport. As I continued filling out the form, I checked “No” on the form because the truth was I hadn’t been to Sierra Leone in the past three weeks.

I calculated: three weeks equals 21 days. Twenty one is the magic number that many African countries and people all over the world will use to promote the stigmatisation of people from Ebola-hit countries, or with any relations to them. It’s the number that would decide your fate when attempting to enter another country. It takes up to 21 days for the deadly Ebola virus to manifest itself in symptoms after one has been exposed. The incubation period, they call it.

No, I haven’t been in Sierra Leone in the past 21 days. Not physically. But in the past 21 days, my thoughts have been there. My mind has raced incessantly and my heart has jumped at the numbers. My soul has cringed at flaws that have been illustrated by this epidemic in Sierra Leone. For more than 21 days, I have certainly felt helpless.

But this customs officer didn’t exactly know how I or other Sierra Leoneans have felt for the past few months. As he attempted to look for a clear page to add the Rwanda entry stamp, he came across my Sierra Leonean visa page. He glanced at my passport and the stamps for my entries to Sierra Leone, the most recent being December 2013 to January 2014. I watched his eyes widen slightly as he turned the pages and I anticipated the questioning. It took a while for him to gather his thoughts and ask the question. “Are you coming from the United States?” Obviously, I thought to myself. “When last have you traveled to Sierra Leone?” Didn’t you already see the stamps? “What was the last date you left Sierra Leone?” I responded “January 10, 2014. And when I left, this wasn’t a problem”.

Some countries have banned the entry of citizens and passengers arriving from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia – nations that have been hit the hardest by the latest Ebola outbreak. I understand caution but paranoia and, consequently, stigmatisation, are not the cures to this disease. To see a Sierra Leonean visa in my passport evidently put the official on high alert. The realisation that I could somehow be considered a ‘risk’ – not just to this man but to his country – despite the evidence before him made me feel small.

He stared at me a bit longer, as if trying to gauge whether the words I uttered were the truth. Then he asked me for my point of contact. I gave him that information. He made the decision not to call or do whatever he had considering doing. I smiled because even in the face of this ugly stigma and the horror that we know as Ebola in Sierra Leone, I am still proudly a “Salone Titi.” I thanked him, retrieved my passport, and rolled my hand luggage to begin my experience as a Sierra Leonean-American woman in Rwanda.

 Bintu Musa is a globetrotting educator and writer. She is currently lecturing at Rwanda Tourism University College as a Fulbright Scholar. She blogs at Bee’s Backseat

Sierra Leone quarantines more than 1-million people

A woman passes a sign posted in an awareness campaign against the spread of Ebola in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Pic: Reuters)
A woman passes a sign posted in an awareness campaign against the spread of Ebola in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Pic: Reuters)

Sierra Leone has ordered the quarantine “with immediate effect” of three districts and 12 tribal chiefdoms – affecting more than one million people – in the largest lockdown in west Africa’s deadly Ebola outbreak.

President Ernest Bai Koroma, in a national televised address late on Wednesday, announced that the northern districts of Port Loko and Bombali were to be closed off along with the southern district of Moyamba – effectively sealing off around 1.2-million people.

With the eastern districts of Kenema and Kailahun already under quarantine, more than a third of the population of six million, in five of the nation’s 14 districts, now finds itself unable to move freely.

“The isolation of districts and chiefdoms will definitely pose great difficulty but the lives of everyone and the survival of our country takes precedence over these difficulties,” Koroma said.

“These are trying moments for everyone in the country.”

The deadliest Ebola epidemic on record has infected almost 6 000 people in west Africa and killed nearly half of them, according to the World Health Organisation’s latest figures.

The virus can fell its victims within days, causing rampant fever, severe muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and — in many cases — unstoppable internal and external bleeding.

In Sierra Leone, Ebola has infected 1 813 people, killing 593, by the WHO count.

Koroma said that 12 of the county’s 149 tribal chiefdoms – much smaller administrative areas than districts – were also to be placed in quarantine. The total population in these areas was not immediately clear.

The president said corridors for travel to and from non-quarantined areas had been established but would only operate between 9:00 am and 5pm.

“The Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the emergency operation centre will establish additional holding centres in the quarantined chiefdoms,” Koroma said.

Death toll
Sierra Leone announced on Wednesday that around 100 bodies and 200 patients had been collected from homes during a nationwide three-day lockdown and house-to-house information campaign which ended on Sunday.

“To sustain our efforts in overcoming the challenges that were further revealed during the house-to-house campaign and in consultation with our partners – and in line with our people’s avowed commitment to support extra measures to end the Ebola outbreak – the government decided to institute these further measures,” Koroma added.

The WHO said earlier this week 5 864 people had been infected since the virus first emerged in southern Guinea in December, and that 2 811 had died.

In Liberia, which has been hit hardest by the outbreak, 3 022 people have been infected and 1 578 have died while in Guinea, Ebola has infected 1 008 people, killing 632.

Nigeria has recorded 20 cases, including eight deaths, since the virus first arrived in the country with a Liberian finance ministry official, who died in Lagos on July 25.

Guinea’s President Alpha Conde and cabinet ministers from Liberia and Sierra Leone were due to attend a meeting in New York on Ebola convened by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later Thursday.

The meeting – part of the United Nations General Assembly – will hear from US President Barack Obama and world leaders are expected to pledge help for efforts to try to contain the spread of the virus.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan appeared to jump the gun on medical advice at home on Wednesday to tell an applauding UN that Nigeria was free of Ebola.

“We can confidently say that today Nigeria is Ebola free,” Jonathan told the largest diplomatic gathering in the world to a ripple of applause in New York.

“Nigeria is Ebola free,” he said a second time to further applause.

Doctors said earlier they would have to wait to declare the outbreak over despite the Nigerian federal health ministry saying all patients being monitored for the virus had been cleared.

Rod Mac Johnson for AFP