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Sierra Leone begins three-day shutdown to contain Ebola outbreak

People out to buy last-minute provisions in Freetown on Thursday before the three-day curfew began. Photograph: Tanya Bindra/EPA

Sierra Leone has commenced a three-day shutdown to contain the spread of the Ebola virus, as the UN security council declared the deadly outbreak a threat to world peace.

Most of the west African country’s population of 6 million were confined to their homes from midnight, with only essential workers such as health professionals and security forces exempt.

Almost 30,000 volunteers will make house calls to educate residents and distribute soap, in an exercise that could lead to scores more patients and bodies being discovered in people’s homes.

Health experts have criticised the shutdown, arguing that coercive measures to stem the epidemic could backfire and will be difficult to implement.

Médecins sans Frontières, a medical charity, said lockdowns might drive people underground and could “jeopardise the trust between people and health providers”.

Sierra Leone’s president said if the population heeded the volunteers’ advice, the campaign would “help to reverse the increasing trend of the disease transmission and become a very big boost to our collective effort to stop the outbreak”.

In a message broadcast on television and radio, Ernest Bai Koroma said: “These are extraordinary times and extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.”

There is mounting global concern over the Ebola epidemic, which has killed more than 2,600 people in west Africa. In Guinea, paranoia over the virus is so rife that seven people sent to educate villagers on the disease were found dead after being attacked by locals who apparently feared the delegation meant them harm.

In New York, the UN security council unanimously adopted a resolution declaring that the unprecedented extent of the Ebola outbreak in Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security.

It called for immediate aid, urged states to lift travel and border restrictions and asked airlines and shipping companies to maintain their links with affected countries.

Ebola fever can fell its victims within days, causing severe muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and – in some cases – internal and external bleeding.

More than 550 people have died from the disease in Sierra Leone, one of the three hardest-hit countries alongside Guinea and Liberia.

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