Oct 8, 2014 6:42 AM

Sierra Leone strike halts burial of Ebola dead

The Associated Press

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) Burial teams in Sierra Leone abandoned the dead bodies of Ebola victims in the capital after going on strike this week, though an official claimed Wednesday the situation had been "resolved."

In neighboring Liberia, health workers said they planned to strike if their demands for more money and safety equipment were not met by the end of the week.

The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation reported that bodies of Ebola victims were being left in homes and on the streets of Freetown because of the strike by burial teams, who complained they had not been paid. The dead bodies of Ebola victims are highly contagious.

Speaking on a radio breakfast program Wednesday, deputy health minister Madina Rahman said the strike had been "resolved," though organizers could not immediately be reached to confirm it was over.

Rahman said the dispute centered on a one-week backlog for hazard pay that had been deposited in the bank but was not given to burial teams on time.

"The health ministry is going to investigate the delay in the health workers not receiving their money," Rahman said.

The burial teams make up a total of 600 workers organized in groups of 12, health ministry spokesman Sidie Yahya Tunis said.

Tunis described the situation as "very embarrassing." The government was already facing criticism this week over a shipping container filled with medical gear and mattresses that has been held up at the port for more than a month.

The World Health Organization says Ebola is believed to have killed more than 600 people in Sierra Leone, where there have been more than 2,100 confirmed cases. More than 3,400 people have been killed by the outbreak in West Africa, which has hit Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia hardest.

In Liberia, health workers are demanding monthly salaries of $700 as well as personal protective equipment to be distributed to health centers across the country, said George Williams, secretary-general of the National Health Workers Association.

"We give the government up to the weekend to address all these or else we will stop work," Williams said. "We will pack our tools and leave."

The average health worker salary is currently below $500. Finance Minister Amara Konneh has defended the compensation for health workers, saying last week that it was more than Sierra Leone and Guinea were offering.

Health workers are especially vulnerable to Ebola, which is spread by contact with the bodily fluids of infected people. Williams said more than 100 health workers had died responding to the outbreak in Liberia.

Liberia's United Nations peacekeeping mission said Wednesday that an international member of its medical team had contracted Ebola, the second member of the mission to come down with the disease. The first died on Sept. 25.

The mission is identifying and isolating others who may have been exposed and reviewing procedures to mitigate risk, Karin Landgren, special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said in a statement.

In Spain, officials said Wednesday that a nurse and a nursing assistant have been placed under observation for Ebola in a Madrid hospital where a colleague became infected after working with two Spanish missionary priests who contracted the disease in West Africa and later died at the center. It was not known whether the two also treated the two priests or the infected colleague.

The infected nursing assistant is the first person known to have caught the disease outside the outbreak zone in West Africa during the current epidemic. She was said to be in stable condition Wednesday.

In an interview published by Spain's El Mundo newspaper, the woman said she followed safety protocols as part of the team treating the priests and had no idea how she contracted the virus.

She said by telephone from quarantine she felt "better, a little bit better" since being hospitalized on Monday at the specially equipped Carlos III hospital in Madrid designated for treatment of Ebola patients.

Her husband, Javier Limon, is also quarantined at the hospital. He identified his wife as Teresa Romero in a video of himself that he sent to Spain's Animal Rights Party pleading for people to support his drive to prevent Spanish authorities from euthanizing the couple's dog, a mixed breed named Excalibur.

Limon told El Mundo by telephone that his wife went on vacation after Spanish missionary Manuel Garcia Viejo died at Carlos III. She started feeling sick with a low fever Sept. 30 but did go to a career advancement exam attended by other candidates, Limon said. Health authorities have said she did not leave the Madrid area during her vacation.

Romero was required to help care for the first Spanish priest who died from Ebola in August but volunteered to help care for Garcia Viejo, Limon said.

Dozens of animal rights activists outside the couple's apartment complex Wednesday morning scuffled with police, trying to prevent an ambulance and workers in white hazmat suits from entering to disinfect the couple's apartment and take away Excalibur.

Madrid regional's government obtained a court order Tuesday to euthanize the dog, saying "available scientific information" cannot rule out the possibility that Excalibur could spread the virus.

Two other people quarantined in Madrid, a nurse and a Spanish engineer who had traveled to Nigeria, were cleared Wednesday to check out of Carlos III hospital after testing negative for the Ebola.

Spanish authorities are investigating how the nursing assistant became infected. They are also monitoring some 50 people who came into contact with her or also tended the two priests who died.

Health authorities in Madrid have faced accusations of not following protocol and poorly preparing health care workers for dealing with Ebola.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy defended Spain's health care system in Parliament on Wednesday, saying it is "one of the best in the world," and urged critics to "let the health care workers who have a proven reputation do their work."


Associated Press writers Ciaran Giles and Alan Clendenning in Madrid and Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia, contributed to this report.


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