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As Ebola Outbreak Worsens, West Africa Turns To Quarantines


The leaders of three African nations hit hardest by Ebola met with the head of the World Health Organization today. WHO Director General Margaret Chan issued a bleak assessment of the situation. She says the disease is moving faster than the efforts to control it. If the situation continues to deteriorate, she says the consequences could be catastrophic. As NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports, health officials will attempt to contain the disease with quarantines.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: When people talk about imposing a quarantine, that can mean many things. And it's still not clear what type of quarantine the governments of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea might try. They already have checkpoints on the roads leading out of the affected areas where they screen people for symptoms of Ebola, and pull aside anyone who seems sick. Will they simply add more of those or will military and police cordon off entire villages or even districts and prevent anyone there from leaving? That level of quarantine is highly unusual. Health experts say it wasn't even used in previous outbreaks of Ebola. But Gregory Hertl, a spokesman for the World Health Organization says officials there are considering recommending an all-out quarantine this time.

GREGORY HERTL: There are, you know, pros and cons to be weighed up and that, but we might be working to develop something soon because yes. at this moment because of the size of this Ebola outbreak. you know, it could well be that we need extraordinary measures.

AIZENMAN: Health workers operating in the area say there's no question more screening checkpoints are needed on the routes leading out of affected areas. Meredith Dyson with the aid organization Catholic Relief Services in Sierra Leone says right now the checkpoints are only placed at major roads.

MEREDITH DYSON: There are a handful of major roads that connect these areas, but there are lots of other ways that people travel back and forth.

AIZENMAN: But Dyson says that if the government tries to stop not just sick people, but seemingly healthy people from coming and going, it could cause big problems. People may run out of essential items like food. After all, this is one of the world's poorest regions. Food is already in short supply. Still, some say the government or international donors could bring in supplies to make sure people in the quarantine areas don't starve. Bart Janssens is operational director for Doctors Without Borders.

BART JANSSENS: Smaller villages can, indeed, temporarily be sort of separated from contact from the rest with support.

AIZENMAN: And he says there are a lot of villages where this kind of all-out quarantine is warranted. But he stresses that none of this should be enforced by military personnel.

JANSSENS: If it's done in the not practical, forced way, this could create more confusion or even panic. What I think would be important to avoid is without appropriate communication, forcefully impose measures that people do not understand.

AIZENMAN: The right way to get villagers to stay put, he says, is to explain to them why it's a good idea. Janssens says his group which is operating in all three of the affected countries has already done this in some villages. They've called meetings and sat down with people for as long as two hours to talk the idea through.

JANSSENS: If it's well done, we've shown that it's possible on a smaller scale.

AIZENMAN: So, he says, with enough resources and done the right way, quarantines should be possible to scale up. And they could go a long way toward stopping the spread of the Ebola virus. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.