Ebola seals Ivory Coast off from infected neighbours

Fatoumata Kone, centre, with her family in the village of Sipilou - 27 August 2014
Image caption Fatoumata Kone, centre, says she is afraid of death because "it is not a trip that you can return from"

Soldiers at Ivory Coast's Sipilou border crossing into Guinea, where the Ebola outbreak started earlier this year, stare blankly into the distance.

One has his eyes glued to his mobile phone, his fingers rapidly moving around the keypad. Another, slouched in a reclining chair, chews on something absent-mindedly.

Since the closure of the border at the weekend there is nothing to do except wait, patiently.

Sipilou is closed, along with every other official entry point into Liberia and Guinea, two of the countries worst-hit by the deadly virus.

Trucks overflowing with bananas and goods are already beginning to pile up in this small border town - with nowhere to go.

"The problem is I have family on the other side of the border," says Fatoumata Kone, known as the "vieille" or the old woman of Sipilou village.

"They can't return. We are so scared."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Ivorian health ministry has been organising simulations across the country to prepare for the worst

"Scared" seems to be the word people living along the Liberian and Guinean borders are using every day now.

Ms Kone explains how they have stopped eating bushmeat.

They no longer shake hands and even refrain from having sex - anything to stop Ebola from taking a hold of their precious community.

"I'm afraid of death, because it is not a trip that you can return from," she says.

More than 1,500 have died from Ebola since it was first reported in Meliandou, a small village in south-eastern Guinea, in March.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the Ebola outbreak is the largest ever, and health experts now say the situation will only get worse before it gets better.

Image caption Dr Krouwa Erick is confident he could deal with an Ebola case despite limited resources in Sipilou

Dr Krouwa Erick, the head doctor at Sipilou, takes me to the village clinic. He shows me a small concrete room with three neatly made hospital beds inside.

It would be the first destination for any suspected case of Ebola that crossed the border, and one of five Ebola treatment centres in the region.

"If we get a case, we would put them here until we could get an ambulance to come from Biankouma," he says.

"There are no worries," he adds confidently, even though the room hardly appears to qualify as a quarantine area.

Biankouma is a two-hour bumpy car ride away, along a pot-holed mud road that weaves through the mountains and rainforests of western Ivory Coast.

It is a tough ride, made even worse by the tropical West African rains.

Image caption Doctors and nurses at a hospital in the town of Biankouma are running practice drills in dealing with Ebola

But on arrival it is clear the Ebola setup here is on a different level to the four-walled room at Sipilou.

"We have done the maximum to be ready and vigilant as soon as any suspected case arrives," says Doctor Seydou Doumbia, the regional health director.

"You can never be ready enough but I think we are strong enough to fight this epidemic," he adds.

The hospital grounds, with freshly cut grass, are cordoned off with red and white emergency tape.

The doctors and nurses, dressed in white lab coats, are performing their monthly simulation. A man pretending to have Ebola lies patiently in the Unicef tent reserved for four Ebola victims.

Dr Koulai Valentin, the hospital's head doctor, meticulously starts putting on the Ebola contamination suit in the round concrete hut reserved solely for dressing.

He pulls the hood over his head, along with the goggles, a face mask, two pairs of gloves, two pairs of shoe covers, and then an apron to cover everything.

He walks slowly and carefully over to the contamination tent, where he dips his plastic covered feet into a tub of chlorinated water before entering.

Preparing for the worst

After examining the "victim" Dr Valentin walks out of the back of the tent down the hill to the fire raging in an oil drum.

He points to two small bungalows, separated from the main Ebola tent. That is where patients go to recover when and if they survive the deadly disease, he tells me.

He carefully removes every item of his contamination suit.

"It is so hot inside," he says, sweat dripping down the side of his face.

It has been 20 minutes since he put the suit on.

"Because I am carrying weight I can last a maximum of two hours," he says. "But for the others, maybe three hours is the most."

As he talks he puts each item of clothing into a plastic bag in a specific order so as not to transfer the disease.

"When we're finished, you come down here and burn all your clothes," he says throwing them into the oil drum.

Each suit can only be worn once - the plastic goggles give off a strange smell as the fire turns the transparent plastic black.

Image caption Villager Singa Toure says people on the Ivorian border with Guinea are very scared of the disease

The treatment centres and border closures are just two of the preventative measures Ivory Coast has taken against Ebola.

The government also banned all flights to and from Ebola-affected countries - a move criticised by the WHO and rescinded by regional health ministers on 28 August.

There is a dedicated government Ebola website, a hotline number (which works), adverts on TV and radio stations, text messages and awareness campaigns in communities all over the country.

No-one shakes anyone's hand any more, and bushmeat is slowly becoming a taboo rather than a delicacy.

The entire country has been sealed off from its Ebola-ridden neighbours.

'We are truly afraid'

I ask Dr Doumbia whether he thinks they have abandoned Liberia and Guinea, countries people only speak about now when referring to "la maladie".

"Listen, the situation has forced us to do this," he says. "These are the key zones that need to be locked down to stop people from mingling. It is obvious we would do that."

Back in Sipilou, despite the plummet in trade, villagers are relieved the border is closed. But they are also aware that the closure of official crossings does not mean people will not cross.

The borders are completely porous; hundreds of kilometres of rainforest. If people wanted to come into Ivory Coast there are a myriad ways to do so.

"We are scared," says 28-year-old Singa Toure. "We are truly afraid because of the Ebola disease. We don't want that sickness to come here in Ivory Coast," she says.

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