FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — A Sierra Leone soldier has tested positive for Ebola but he is not a member of and had no contact with a battalion of peacekeepers waiting to deploy to Somalia, a government spokesman said Tuesday.
The case underscores the precautions being taken to minimize the spread of the dreaded, fatal disease, and the risks inherent in the movement of people.
Doctors Without Borders, meanwhile, said Tuesday that 16 of its staff members have been infected with Ebola and that nine have died. The toll highlights the high risk of caring for Ebola patients even at well-equipped and properly staffed treatment centers.
The troops were supposed to relieve a battalion already serving with an African Union mission to protect the Somali government and fight al-Shabab militants. The replacement’s deployment was put on hold this summer when the Ebola outbreak in West Africa spiraled out of control.
Earlier this month, Osman Keh Kamara, Sierra Leone’s ambassador to Ethiopia, where the AU has its headquarters, pleaded for the new battalion be allowed to rotate in and relieve their compatriots, saying the ones in Sierra Leone had been held in isolation for four months and screened for Ebola.
In recent days, the African Union agreed to that request, an official with the military mission said Tuesday. He insisted on anonymity because he is not the force’s spokesman.
It was unclear if the announcement of the Ebola case would throw the deployment into doubt again. A Sierra Leone government spokesman stressed that the two are unrelated.
The soldier became ill while working at a military facility in Bengwema, near Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, and has been admitted to a military hospital, according to Abdulai Bayraytay, a spokesman with Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Information. Meanwhile, the Somali-bound troops were being held in isolation at a separate facility in Hastings, near the capital.
“This one case has no contact absolutely with the 850 troops on standby,” he said.
The Ebola outbreak that was first identified in March has devastated Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. More than 4,400 deaths have been linked to Ebola so far and even that may be an underestimate, according to the World Health Organization.
Health workers have been particularly hard hit by the outbreak. Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids, so doctors and nurses and family members of the sick are the most at risk of catching the disease.
Doctors Without Borders told reporters it desperately needs more help to keep up with the outbreak.
“Where is WHO Africa? Where is the African Union?” asked Sharon Ekambaram, the head of Doctors Without Borders in South Africa, who worked in Sierra Leone from August to September. “We’ve all heard their promises in the media but have seen very little on the ground.”
The African Union has promised to send at least 100 health workers and other personnel to the hardest-hit countries; it said about 30 have gone to Liberia and Sierra Leone so far.
Juli Switala, a South African pediatrician with Doctors Without Borders, said her team made the difficult decision not to resuscitate babies who were not newborn out of fear that staff may be infected by bodily fluids. The clinic in the town of Bo in Sierra Leone similarly decided to turn away pregnant women because childbirth poses a greater risk to staff.
Switala says her country’s high death rate at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic prepared her for her work with Ebola, even though the loss of her patients is at a more rapid rate.
“The hardest part is that you never get a break from thinking about Ebola,” said Switala, who returns to Sierra Leone in a few days.