Sierra Leone president makes Ebola plea to chiefs

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FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Sierra Leone's president implored the country's traditional leaders on Thursday to stop cultural practices that have been blamed for spreading Ebola, like burials that involve touching corpses.

Officials have said up to 70 percent of new infections in Sierra Leone are linked to unsafe burials. The bodies of people who have died from Ebola are highly contagious and must be handled carefully.

"We should stop all traditional practices for now so that we will live to continue to practice them later," President Ernest Bai Koroma said in a speech to launch the "Ebola Resistant Behavior Change Initiative."

For months, Koroma has been urging traditional leaders to use their clout to stop burial and other cultural practices that contribute to the spread of Ebola. But the outbreak has only intensified in Sierra Leone in recent weeks.

In the world's worst-ever Ebola outbreak, more than 18,100 people have been infected and more than 6,500 have died.

There was a note of exasperation Thursday among some speakers at the event in Sierra Leone, and the country's head of Ebola response warned that authorities might resort to force to stop unsafe cultural practices.

"We are not going to have Christmas this year," said Alfred Palo Conteh. "Everybody should stay at home."

But Koroma also said he hoped to end all Ebola transmissions in the next 21 days.

That goal seems unrealistic in a country that the World Health Organization says has recorded between around 400 and 500 cases in recent weeks. In the district of Kono, which authorities put under lockdown this week, the U.N. health agency reported finding bodies piled up at a hospital and overwhelmed health workers struggling to bury the dead and care for the sick.

Even more concerning, the outbreak is now concentrated around the densely-populated capital, where Koroma said 50 percent of all deaths were from Ebola.

Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders said Thursday it has pulled out of Liberia's Lofa County — once the site of intense transmission — because there have been no cases there in six weeks.

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