A nationwide lockdown in Sierra Leone to combat the spread of the deadly Ebola virus has been deemed a success by the government in Freetown, despite some skepticism amongst international health groups. People have been effectively confined to their homes in an attempt to prevent the spread of the highly contagious disease and to allow health workers to visit infected people.
The response – in effect a national quarantine – is a drastic measure which demonstrates the desperation of the West African country to tackle an outbreak that has claimed the lives of more than 500 of its citizens.
Imposing the lockdown is a modern take on the leper colonies of history. By isolating those afflicted by disease, others cannot be affected by direct transmission. It is a simple solution, although one very difficult to implement on the scale seen in Sierra Leone.
Leper colonies date back to at least the 13th century and, along with similar asylums and refuges, had widespread global use until the early 20th century. Conditions at these institutions ranged from the diabolical to the pristine, many of them run by monastic orders following in the footsteps of Saint Lazarus.
Whilst it is now known that leprosy is not particularly contagious, it was long feared that even remote contact with sufferers was enough for the unpleasant disease to be transmitted. The social stigma attached to the disease further encouraged the removal of lepers from public viewing, a practice still not uncommon in parts of the developing world.
With space is such a premium in an overpopulated world, the ability to quarantine large groups of people has become increasingly difficult. Imposing a Freetown-style lockdown is not a sustainable solution; leper colonies are far more manageable, albeit their necessity for maintaining public health is somewhat dubious.
Disease prevention is as much about altering misconceptions and challenging traditional notions as it is about finding an effective cure. Despite the knowledge that leprosy is preventable, treatable and only mildly contagious, the perceived need for leper colonies remains in some countries.
Ebola, on the other hand, is highly contagious and quickly proves fatal. Despite this, many families of those infected by Ebola refuse medical treatment, opting instead for ‘traditional cures’, whilst refusing to allow the isolation of those affected.
Implementing a military-style lockdown to combat these counter-productive practices, whilst useful in the short-term, is no solution. Education and raised awareness are the only hope of lessening the impact of this tragic outbreak.