FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Shoppers crowded the streets and markets of Sierra Leone's capital Thursday, stocking up for a three-day shutdown when volunteers will identify people infected with Ebola and hand out 1.5 million bars of soap, as authorities struggle to slow an accelerating outbreak.
The outbreak sweeping West Africa has also touched Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal, and is believed to have sickened more than 5,300, according to figures released by the World Health Organization on Thursday. In a sign that the outbreak is picking up steam, more than 700 of those cases were recorded in the last week for which data is available.
The disease is now estimated to have killed more than 2,600 people; most deaths have been in Liberia. But the World Health Organization has said that the official toll is probably a gross underestimate and that most patients are at home — and infecting others in the community — not in treatment centers.
The U.N. Security Council will discuss the Ebola threat later Thursday.
In an attempt to slow the outbreak and identify the sick in hiding, Sierra Leone's 6 million people must stay home starting Thursday at midnight, except for thousands of volunteers who will go house-to-house delivering bars of soap and information about how to prevent Ebola. More than six months into the world's largest Ebola outbreak, there are still affected areas without access to water or soap, WHO said Thursday.
Authorities have said they also expect to discover hundreds of new cases during the Friday, Saturday and Sunday exercise. Many people during this outbreak have not sought treatment for Ebola out of fear that hospitals are merely places people go to die. Still others have been turned away by centers overwhelmed by the increasing number of patients.
Sierra Leone's government says it has prepared screening and treatment centers to accept the expected influx of patients after the shutdown.
As shoppers rushed to buy last-minute items, some merchants worried about how they would feed their own families after losing three days' worth of income. Much of Sierra Leone's population lives on $2 a day or less, and making ends meet is a day-to-day struggle.
"If we do not sell here we cannot eat," said Isatu Sesay, a vegetable seller in the capital. "We do not know how we will survive during the three-day shutdown."
The outbreak is overwhelming the resources deployed to fight it. Sierra Leone and Liberia have only about 20 percent of the beds they need to treat patients.
In recent weeks, several countries have promised aid. France announced Thursday that it will set up a military hospital in Guinea in the coming days. The United States plans to send 3,000 military personnel to the region and build more than a dozen treatment centers in Liberia. Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams has arrived in Monrovia to set up a command center for the operation.
Ebola, which is spread through the bodily fluids of those who have symptoms or of the dead, puts health workers at a particularly high risk. Some 318 have become infected, with about half of them dying.
A French nurse for Doctors Without Borders who became infected in Liberia was being flown to Paris on Thursday.
With no licensed treatment for Ebola, public health experts have kept the focus on isolating the sick and tracking down anyone those infected have come into contact with. In past outbreaks, stopping the chain of transmission has been crucial to defeating the disease, but the current outbreak has ballooned out of control, leading to more stringent measures including travel restrictions, the cordoning off of entire communities and now Sierra Leone's nationwide lockdown.
Confusion and fear about the disease and anger over some of these measures has occasionally sparked unrest. In Guinea this week, a team that was doing disinfection and education on prevention methods was attacked. A group of young people set upon the team in a village in the country's southeast, the epicenter of the disease, and they have been missing since, a local government official said.
Though there is no recognized treatment for Ebola, doctors have been testing out experimental ones in this outbreak. For instance, some patients have been given the blood of Ebola survivors, a measure some scientists think can help patients fight off the virus.
British nurse William Pooley, who was infected while working in Sierra Leone and has since recovered, has flown to the United States to donate his blood to an American patient, according to the Foreign Office. It was not disclosed which American patient would be receiving blood from Pooley.