A two-week door-to-door search was launched in Sierra Leone on Wednesday for Ebola patients as a part of sweeping efforts to stem the spread of the Ebola virus in the west of the country.
Healthcare workers fanned out across remote parts of Port Loko district, east of the capital Freetown, after a spike in cases attributed to unsafe burials and patients being hidden from the authorities.
Advertisement"Teams of health workers backed by security personnel are trekking into outlying areas and knocking on doors of houses... to check whether people are telling us the truth about not hiding sick people," Morlai Dumbuya, a coordinator of the operation, told AFP.
"So far we have not met any resistance and people are co-operating."
The operation follows a larger exercise in December, dubbed the "Western Area Surge", when hundreds of volunteers knocked on doors for 15 days across the west of Sierra Leone.
The nation of six million has seen more than 11,000 cases and 3,400 deaths during the epidemic which has raged in west Africa for more than a year.
President Ernest Bai Koroma had pointed to a "steady downward trend" in new cases on January 23, lifting country-wide quarantines affecting half the population and declaring that "victory is in sight".
But optimism gave way to fresh alarm last week as the World Health Organization (WHO) reported the number of new cases rising in Sierra Leone and neighbouring Guinea for the second week running.
Dumbuya said the increase in cases was due to "a series of secret burials and hiding of sick people in homes".
Sierra Leone placed 700 homes in the capital Freetown in quarantine on Friday following the death of a fisherman who tested positive for Ebola.
Residents and healthcare workers have blamed a recent spike of cases in the capital on infected people arriving by canoe from remote areas further up the coast to seek healthcare.
Transmission remains "widespread" in Sierra Leone, which reported 76 new confirmed cases in the week to February 8, according to the WHO.
Ebola, one of the deadliest viruses known to man, is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person showing symptoms such as fever or vomiting or the recently deceased.
Relatives are required by law to report Ebola victims so that they can be buried safely, as traditional burial rites involving the washing of bodies was one of the key early causes of the spread of the epidemic.
The WHO said on Tuesday 9,365 people had died in the outbreak, although it has admitted that the real picture could be far worse as many fatal cases may not have been reported.
In the week up to February 8 a total of 144 new confirmed cases were registered across the three hardest hit countries, compared to 124 the previous week.
"The spike in cases in Guinea and continued widespread transmission in Sierra Leone underline the considerable challenges that must still be overcome to get to zero cases," the WHO said in its latest report.
There was better news in northern Sierra Leone, however, where the Ebola centre in Makeni, the country's third city, was decommissioned after discharging its final patient.
"The closure of the centre is part of the decision of Sierra Leone government authorities to gradually close all centres within hospitals to allow such facilities to revert to the treatment of other ailments that are not Ebola-related," coordinator John Sentamo told reporters.
Progress on eradicating the virus has also been encouraging in Liberia, which saw the most deaths at the peak of the epidemic but registered just three new confirmed cases in the week to February 8.
The Liberian government reopened schools this week after a six-month closure to slow the spread of the virus, while Sierra Leone plans to start the new term at the end of March.
More than 1.3 million children have already returned to classes in Guinea since schools reopened on January 19, according to UNICEF.