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Streets busy as Ebola lockdown ends

Streets in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, are bustling again after an unprecedented nationwide shutdown during which more than one million homes were checked for Ebola patients and given information on the disease.

But the government has delayed an announcement on how many new cases have been discovered.

The national health system, already hit by the Ebola deaths of several leading doctors and many nurses, would be further strained if many additional patients were found.

The Sierra Leone government has ordered tents for temporary treatment centres to make room for those cases, said Abdulai Bayraytay, a government spokesman.

Underscoring how stretched the resources of affected West African nations are, Liberia opened its largest Ebola clinic to date on Sunday and no sooner had the ceremony ended than ambulances rushed there with patients. The facility has 150 beds.

The disease that is transmitted through bodily fluids is blamed for the deaths of more than 2,600 people in West Africa.

In Sierra Leone, at least 77 bodies were buried during the shutdown and half of them tested positive for Ebola,the government spokesman said.

Laboratory tests are awaited for the other half to see whether they also died of Ebola. Some 600 people are believed to have died from the dreaded disease in Sierra Leone, a nation of six million people.

Joe Amon, director of health and human rights for Human Rights Watch, said there was little reason to believe the lockdown had been effective in ending transmission since such measures are so hard to enforce. Frustrated residents complained of food shortages in some neighbourhoods.

"You could argue that it's strictly necessary not because it's an effective way to break transmission but because it's necessary to reach people with communication messages," he said.

Teams carrying soap and information about Ebola reached about 75% of 1.5 million households in this nation, the health ministry said.

Rumours that the soap being distributed had been poisoned showed the importance of education efforts. Residents have overwhelmingly complied by staying in their homes but in one incident health workers trying to bury five bodies 12 miles east of Freetown were attacked. After police reinforcements arrived, the health workers completed the burial.

Ebola has also spread in Liberia and Guinea and a limited number of cases have been reported in Nigeria and one in Senegal.

The hardest hit countries have resorted to extraordinary measures. Liberia has cordoned off entire towns or neighbourhoods, and Sierra Leone's nationwide shutdown was believed to be the most sweeping lockdown against disease since the Middle Ages.

More than 300 health workers in West Africa have been infected, and about half of those have died. A Spanish priest who became infected while serving as a medical director for a hospital in Sierra Leone was flown back to Spain on Monday.

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