Freetown - Hundreds of troops deployed in Sierra Leone and Liberia on Monday to fight the worst outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, as the death toll climbed to 887 and three new suspected cases of the highly contagious disease were reported in Nigeria.
With healthcare systems in the West Africa nations completely overrun by the epidemic, the African Development Bank said on Monday it would immediately disburse $50m to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea - the country's worst affected - as part of an international effort to contain it.
The World Health Organization, which warned last week of catastrophic consequences if the disease were not controlled, reported 61 new deaths in the two days to 1 Aug. The outbreak began in February in the forests of Guinea, where the toll continues to rise, but its epicentre has since shifted to neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In Nigeria, where US citizen Patrick Sawyer died of Ebola in late July after arriving from Liberia, the WHO reported three new cases, two of them probable and one suspected. Nigerian authorities had said earlier on Monday that a doctor who treated Sawyer had contracted the disease, but a health ministry official declined to comment on the discrepancy.
Panic among local communities, which have attacked health workers and threatened to burn down isolation wards, prompted Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea to impose tough measures last week, including the closure of schools and the quarantine of the remote forest region hardest hit by the disease.
Long convoys of military trucks ferried troops and medical workers on Monday to Sierra Leone's far east, where the density of cases is highest. Military spokesperson Colonel Michael Samoura said the operation, code-named Octopus, involved around 750 military personnel.
Troops will gather in the southeastern town of Bo before travelling to isolated communities to implement quarantines, he added. Healthcare workers will be allowed to come and go freely, and the communities will be kept supplied with food.
In neighbouring Liberia, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and ministers held a crisis meeting on Sunday to discuss a series of anti-Ebola measures as police contained infected communities in the northern Lofa county.
Police were setting up checkpoints and roadblocks for key entrance and exit points to those infected communities, with nobody allowed to leave quarantined communities. Troops were fanning out across Liberia to help deal with the emergency.
"The situation will probably get worse before it gets better," Liberian Information Minister Lewis Brown told Reuters. "We are over-stretched. We need support; we need resources; we need workers."
WHO chief Margaret Chan warned regional leaders on Friday that Ebola was outpacing their efforts to contain it and pledged to organise a $100m international response to bring the outbreak under control. US officials and multilateral agencies were due to discuss the emergency at a three-day US-Africa summit in Washington, starting on Monday.
A Reuters witness in the Liberian capital Monrovia said several clinics were spontaneously closing their doors as doctors were too afraid to treat patients.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which normally spearheads the fight against Ebola, has only a small team in Liberia and says it does not have the capacity to increase it.
Health workers say they are overwhelmed by the number of cases, a scenario exacerbated by the departure of some international staff following the infection of two US staff of the Samaritan's Purse charity in Liberia.
One of them, Kent Brantly, was improving on Sunday after being flown back to the United States for treatment. The second staff member, Nancy Writebol, was expected to arrive back in the United States by midday on Tuesday, according to Samaritan's Purse.
The normally bustling streets of Sierra Leone's capital Freetown were eerily quiet on Monday after President Ernest Bai Koromo called on residents to stay home and pray, a Reuters reporter said.
Ambulances and police vehicles lined the streets, while radio stations played interviews with health ministry officials and a musical jingle informing the local population of symptoms.
Highly contagious, the deadliest strain of the Ebola virus can kill up to 90% of those infected, though in the current outbreak the rate is running around 55%. Symptoms initially include muscle pains and joint aches, though they worsen to vomiting, diarrhoea and internal and external bleeding in the final stages.
Officials seeking to bury Ebola victims faced protests at a burial site in a suburb of Monrovia this weekend and about 25 soldiers were called in to guard the site.