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Sierra Leone bans festive gatherings on Ebola fears

The government of Sierra Leone has banned Christmas and New Year gatherings for fear the Ebola virus will spread to rural villages as people go home to celebrate.

The edict, which will be enforced by the army, means those who live in the capital Freetown will be barred from travelling to join their extended families. The city’s residents account for a third of the country’s population.

Defence Minister Palo Conteh, who heads the government’s Ebola response unit, said on Friday there would be “no Christmas and New Year celebrations this year. We will ensure that everybody remains at home to reflect on Ebola.

“Military personnel will be on the streets at Christmas and the New Year to stop any street celebrations.”

More than a quarter of the population of Sierra Leone is Christian, although Islam is the dominant religion. Christmas decorations are for sale at the roadside markets and there are Christmas trees in many public buildings.

But there have been serious concerns that the number of Ebola cases could soar over the festive period. Public gatherings are already banned to avoid contagion.

Schools are closed across the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea where the epidemic is raging, disrupting the education of five million children. Bars and clubs are closed. Football games are among the sports caught up in the ban. Churches have been allowed to hold services, but must separate the congregants.

The densely populated Freetown has the greatest number of cases, but population movement causes sudden outbreaks in remote parts of the country. The latest is in Kono, a diamond mining centre. The World Health Organisation reported this week that an emergency response team, on reaching the remote district, had found many sick people, and buried 87 bodies.

Oxfam’s Ebola response manager in Sierra Leone, Peter Struijf, said: “This Christmas is not going to be like any other and we are nowhere near the end of this mess.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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