By Umaru Fofana
FREETOWN (Reuters) - Religious leaders in Sierra Leone have criticised the government's handling of an Ebola outbreak that has killed 194 people in the West Africa country, saying a lack of information was prompting rural communities to shun medical help.
Health authorities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are struggling to contain the worst outbreak of the deadly epidemic which has killed some 603 people since early this year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Bishop John Yambasu, chairman of an interfaith task force, said he was "seriously disappointed" the government had failed to declare a public health emergency and pump more resources into the fight against Ebola, which has infected 400 people in the country.
The highest number of deaths in recent weeks had been recorded in Sierra Leone, the WHO said. It warned of resistance from remote rural communities to allowing access to doctors amid fears that outsiders were spreading the disease.
"Every day in this country the number of new cases is increasing. To us as religious leaders that is unacceptable," Yambasu, head of the United Methodist Church of Sierra Leone, told Reuters. He said the government was too concerned by the "political connotations" of declaring an emergency.
Health Minister Miatta Kargbo has said the Ebola outbreak is "a serious matter" but has not reached emergency levels.
Ebola causes fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhoea and was first detected in Democratic Republic of Congo in the mid-1970s. Spread through contact with blood and bodily fluids, it is one of the deadliest viruses, killing up to 90 percent of those infected, and has no known cure.
Dozens of nurses at a government hospital in eastern Sierra Leone town of Kenema went on an indefinite strike on Monday following the death of three of their colleagues on Sunday. All three were suspected to have been infected with the deathly virus.
The Kenema hospital has the only testing centre in the country for the haemorrhagic fever and holds the highest number of patients of the outbreak.
Mohamed Sheriff, a spokesman for the nurses, said they were demanding among other things the "immediate relocation to an isolated area of the Ebola ward and its takeover by the French medical agency, MSF".
The Ebola wards are situated inside the Kenema hospital compound which the striking workers say poses a health risk to them and non-Ebola patients.
Sierra Leone's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Brima Kargbo said the government was looking into the nurses' grievances.
Dozens of laboratory technicians at Sierra Leone's only Ebola-testing facility went on strike last week over a $20 monthly risk premium which they were promised but never paid.
Yambasu said that in Kailahun in eastern Sierra Leone - the epicentre of the outbreak - locals had dug trenches to bar ambulances and police from accessing their communities. Many locals regard being taken to an isolation ward as a death sentence.
"It is likely that people are dying in the bush" due to lack of information about the disease, he said, adding that leaving those infected in their communities was encouraging the virus to spread.
Yambasu said religious leaders would preach in their churches and mosques for a change of attitude towards the disease and would visit the centre of the outbreak and call for change.
Sierra Leone's religious leaders played a leading role in ending a brutal 1991-2002 civil war.
"It is as a result of our experiences of the past that we have invited ourselves into this Ebola struggle," he said.
(Reporting by Umaru Fofana; Writing by Daniel Flynn and Bate Felix; Editing by Susan Fenton)