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Sierra Leone On Lockdown Over Ebola


And I'm Melissa Block. Raising awareness about Ebola has been an incredible challenge in West Africa, the heart of the epidemic. Workers trying to educate the public have faced wide suspicion. That fear and mistrust turned deadly in Guinea this week. Eight people, including health officials and journalists, were killed by residence in a small village in southern Guinea. The government says six people have been arrested. In neighboring Sierra Leone, the country is trying to educate the public in a three-day lockdown. People are being asked to stay inside their homes while workers go from house to house. And NPR's Anders Kelto followed one of those teams today. He joins us from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Anders, tell us about that mission. How'd it go?

ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: Well, I would say that things got off to a pretty rocky start. We went to a community health center here in Freetown. And there was a large group of people gathered there. I would say over a hundred workers. And they were pretty excited to be there. They were ready to go and start spreading this educational message. But the supplies that were supposed to be delivered were not there. And so they spent several hours waiting for some soap and for some educational posters that they were supposed to put up on the houses they visited. Neither of those things arrived until much later than anticipated. Each of these groups was supposed to visit 300 households today. And I would say, given that ambitious number and with the late start, it's almost certain that none of them met that target.

BLOCK: And is that the extent of what they have - soap and posters?

KELTO: That's basically it. And at the community center that we were visiting, the posters actually never arrived. And so rather than putting up posters, some of the groups just took chalk and were putting X-marks on the houses that they had visited so that other groups wouldn't come by and speak to the same families.

BLOCK: Now, Anders, the government says there are nearly 30,000 workers helping with this campaign. Who are they?

KELTO: There are health workers, people from NGOs. There are teachers. There are students. And in fact, a lot of the people that are out are young people - current students, including a young man who we met named James Kagu who was really excited to help out.

JAMES KAGU: It's necessary that we all come out, volunteer and sensitize those who have doubts. This is a plague. It's an epidemic. And it is how we handle it - how better we handle it.

KELTO: And many of the other young people that we spoke with were similarly optimistic.

BLOCK: Well, Anders, does it seem that people are obeying the mandate to stay inside to comply with this lockdown?

KELTO: It seems like it. In downtown Freetown, which is normally a really bustling area with cars and tons of people everywhere, it was a complete ghost town today. I mean, no stores were open. No gas stations were open. The market, which is usually packed, was completely abandoned. There was trash everywhere. There were literally dogs sleeping in the middle of the street. And the only people that you saw were police officers and military officials that were patrolling the city and running checkpoints for any vehicles on the road.

BLOCK: There does still seem to be a lot of confusion about whether, along with educating the people, part of the mission here is to find people who are infected who may be hiding or dead bodies and what they're supposed to do if they do find them.

KELTO: The government is claiming that that is not part of this mission. They insist that this is just an educational campaign to make people understand what Ebola is, to make people believe that it's real and to encourage them if they have a sick family member to call a hotline and to have that person taken to a holding facility or to an isolation center. But the feeling among a lot of people on the ground is that it is sort of a hunt. And there is some concern that people may respond to that by not disclosing that they have a sick family member but in fact concealing them.

BLOCK: And as this lockdown is underway in Sierra Leone, there are more details coming out about the deadly attack. We mentioned eight workers killed in Guinea. What more can you tell us about that?

KELTO: Well, it seems that a group of people in rural, southern Guinea - very close to where this outbreak first began - attacked and killed a group of people, including health workers, local officials and three local journalists. They were going house-to-house, much like people in Sierra Leone were doing today, to try and educate people about Ebola. But in that part of Guinea and in other parts of West Africa, there's a lot of distrust of these public health officials. And they apparently believe that this group was coming to spread Ebola not to educate people about Ebola. And the victim's bodies were found in the latrine pit outside of a school. And this is happening at a terrible time because efforts to reach more people and to educate more people about Ebola are now being ramped up. And an event like this will put a lot of fear into people who are trying to help with this outbreak.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Anders Kelto reporting from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Anders, thanks very much.

KELTO: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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