S'pore woman flees Ebola-hit Sierra Leone: 'The epidemic's a faceless enemy'
The Ebola outbreak that started in May was 483km away in the rural eastern district of Kailahun.
It would never come to Freetown - or so the residents of the capital and largest city of Sierra Leone thought.
The distance is more than that from Singapore to Fraser's Hill in Malaysia.
Such complacency brought back bad memories of the time when rebels first attacked the city in 1998.
"The rebels had captured the northern town of Kabala," recalled Singaporean Dr Kitty Fadlu-Deen, 71.
"Then, the people living in Freetown said it was too far away to have any impact on us. But soon, they were upon us, murdering, mutilating and raping thousands of civilians."
Rebels and renegade soldiers first destroyed her home in 1997, amid a military coup to overthrow the government of president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.
Another coup happened, in 1999.
Today, she said, the enemy is a "much scarier one".
"It has no face," she told The New Paper in a telephone interview from Ghana, where she has sought refuge with her husband, Dr Ahmadu Fadlu-Deen, a medical doctor, and their granddaughter.
Dr Kitty Fadlu-Deen, the principal of the Ballanta Academy of Music, grew up in Siglap. She met her husband in Ireland in the 1960s, when they were undergraduates at University College Dublin.
The couple married and moved to Sierra Leone in 1970, where she raised four children - two girls and two boys - now in their 40s and living in different countries.
"This (disease) was something quite new and there was no cure for it. Yet many people did not really understand its gravity. They were initially convinced that it was not real," she said.
When the disease hit sometime in July, some said you wouldn't get infected unless you sinned. Others linked it to politics, saying only those living in opposition wards were at risk, Dr Fadlu-Deen added.
"Life still goes on in the city. Once in a while, there would be megaphones blaring out awareness messages to remind passers-by that Ebola is real and to take the necessary steps to prevent the spread," she said.
Ebola is not an airborne virus. Experts say the disease is spread through direct contact with an infected person's blood or body fluids and with objects that have been contaminated.
"Everyone is galvanised into action," she said. "We washed our hands with soap and water constantly. Everyone places buckets of water at the entrances to our homes, shops, offices and churches to encourage handwashing," she said, adding that chlorine tablets were put into the buckets of water.
The government of Sierra Leone has passed laws to limit close contact, altering the city's daily routine.
Dr Fadlu-Deen said Sierra Leonian culture is "very touchy, feely" and greetings are very important. But people have long stopped shaking hands and hugs and kisses are now unheard of.
"We would cross our arms in front of our chests, bow with a smile. That's how we now greet each other, even in the churches and mosques," she said.
There were enforced holidays as schools remained shut and examinations postponed, she said.
The city's many "Poda Poda" minibuses, usually packed shoulder to shoulder with commuters, are now allowed to carry only four people to a row.
Passengers on the Okara taxi motorbikes do not need to wear helmets now, Dr Fadlu-Deen said, because riders are not allowed to lend their helmets to passengers for fear of spreading the infection.
SCARED OF HOSPITALS
Shops and banks close early and people stay away from clinics.
"They are scared that the doctors are duty-bound to inform the authorities, and that those with fever will be taken away by a van to hospitals, never to be heard of again.
"They turned to home remedies and to faith healers. Many of the clinics became empty and had to shut for the lack of patients," she added.
Already two senior doctors, experts in the treatment of Ebola, have died.
The price of rice, an essential food in the country, has also gone up by 30 per cent in the central market. The price of salt has doubled.
Many who can afford to leave Sierra Leone have fled.
Flights out of Freetown Airport were full, with long waiting lists, while other airlines jacked up ticket prices.
"Some of the international ones have already suspended flights," she said.
Airport officials take the temperature of travellers coming into and leaving the capital. Temperatures are recorded before boarding passes are issued, Dr Fadlu-Deen said, and passengers with a fever will not be allowed on a plane.
Dr Fadlu-Deen, her husband and granddaughter managed to get a flight out two weeks ago and are now staying at a friend's place in Ghana to wait out the virus.
Why Ghana and not Singapore? Dr Fadlu-Deen said applying for a visa and waiting for the paperwork to clear for her granddaughter, who holds a Sierra Leone passport, would have taken too long.
"Should the outbreak continue, we will be leaving for the US to join my children," she said, adding she hopes to return to Sierra Leone when it is all over.
"Sierra Leone is my home, after all."
"This (disease) was something quite new and there was no cure for it. Yet many people did not really understand its gravity. They were initially convinced that it was not real."
- Singaporean Dr Kitty Fadlu-Deen
Outbreak getting out of hand
The Ebola outbreaks in West Africa have raced ahead of efforts to contain its spread, said World Health Organisation chief Margaret Chan.
More than 40 per cent of the deaths so far have occurred in the three weeks leading up to Sept 3.
More than 2,000 people have died and another 3,500 cases have been confirmed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
At least US$600m (S$751m) will be needed to fight the virus, and more than 20,000 people risk being infected before the outbreak is brought under control, the WHO warned.
Disease control experts, medical researchers, officials from affected countries, and specialists in medical ethics met in Geneva on Thursdayto examine the most promising treatments and to discuss how to fast-track testing and production.
The Ebola virus was first transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission.
Infection results from direct contact such as broken skin or mucous membranes coming in contact with blood or other bodily fluids of infected people.
It can also be passed through indirect contact with environments contaminated with such fluids.
Men who have recovered from the disease can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to seven weeks.
The disease is severe and often fatal.
Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders warned that a global military intervention was needed to combat the outbreak.
MSF condemned the global response so far as "lethally inadequate" and said the world was "losing the battle" to contain the outbreak.
It called for military and civilian teams capable of dealing with a biological disaster to be deployed immediately.
The charity also called for more field hospitals with isolation wards to be set up, trained healthcare workers to be sent to the region and air support to move patients and medics across West Africa.
Sierra Leone on lockdown
Sierra Leone said it will confine people to their homes in a nationwide three-day shutdown later this month to try and contain the Ebola epidemic threatening west Africa.
Pedestrians and vehicles will be barred from the country's streets, except on essential business, for 72 hours starting from Sept 19.
"This will be strictly adhered to without exception," government spokesman Abdulai Bayratay told AFP by telephone.
The worst-ever outbreak of Ebola has claimed 491 lives in Sierra Leone, which is one of three countries at the epicentre of the epidemic that has killed more than 2,000 people so far.