Freetown - Millions of Sierra Leoneans were set to emerge from their homes on Monday after a three-day nationwide lockdown during which scores of dead bodies and new cases of Ebola infections were uncovered.
The west African country had imposed the extreme measure confining its six million people to their homes for 72 hours in a bid to stem a deadly Ebola outbreak which has claimed more than 2 600 lives there and in neighbouring Liberia and Guinea this year.
Only essential workers such as health professionals were exempt, as were some 30 000 volunteers who went door-to-door to hand out soap and give advice on halting the contagion.
Liberia also ramped up the battle against the epidemic, announcing on Sunday a four-fold increase in hospital beds to 1 000 for Ebola patients in the capital Monrovia, as more US troops arrived to shore up overwhelmed local officials in the fight.
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Ebola fever can fell its victims within days, causing severe muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and - in many cases - unstoppable internal and external bleeding.
Fears of contagion have crippled the economies of affected nations, as wary workers stay home and cross border trade is disrupted by airlines cutting links.
Sierra Leone's deputy chief medical officer Sarian Kamara said that through the lockdown, "we were... able to confirm new cases which, had they not been discovered, would have greatly increased transmission".
"Up to this morning, we had 22 new cases. The response from the medical [teams] has improved and the burial teams were able to bury between 60 to 70 corpses over the past two days."
But the shutdown had also drawn criticism with some calling it a mere publicity stunt and others complaining about the poor quality of advice given by volunteers on stemming the disease.
US military mission
The scale of the challenge was evident in Liberia where health facilities were simply inadequate.
"Patients are being rejected... because there is no space. So the government is trying its best to finish the 1 000 beds so we can accommodate all the patients," Information Minister Lewis Brown told AFP.
The move comes two weeks after the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned the country, worst-hit in the outbreak with more than 1 450 deaths, was about to see a huge spike in infections, with thousands of new cases imminent.
"I am here since this morning, I was here yesterday and the day before, but they keep telling me to go and come back," Fatima Bonoh, aged 35, told AFP, shivering at the entrance of the Redemption hospital, an Ebola referral unit.
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A second deployment of US troops arrived on Sunday at Liberia's international airport, 55km east of Monrovia, as part of an eventual 3 000-strong mission to help tackle the outbreak.
Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters on Friday a C-17 aircraft with equipment and seven service members had already landed, with two more cargo planes carrying 45 personnel due to follow over the weekend.
The team will set up a headquarters for Major General Darryl Williams, who will oversee the US mission to train local health workers and establish additional medical facilities, he said.
Military engineers are due to build new Ebola treatment centres in affected areas, Washington said last week, while US officials will help recruit medical personnel to work at the units.
The latest WHO figures show Liberia reporting 2 710 cases, but they were given a week ago, and the government's two Ebola units in Monrovia say they have been deluged by patients in recent days.
Liberian health officials said action to stop the spread of the disease was also being hampered by traditional communities still ignoring advice on staying away from highly infectious dead bodies.
"Some people are still in denial. Because of that they are not listening to the rules," said Gabriel Gorbee Logan , a health officer in Bomi County, northwest of Monrovia.
"And there is still ongoing burial rites - rituals that citizens are carrying out. They're in the habit of bathing dead bodies because tradition demands it."
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Meanwhile in Nigeria, thousands of students were preparing to return to school on Monday after an enforced summer break because of Ebola, which has claimed eight lives there.
The country's largest city Lagos however said primary and secondary schools in Lagos state would not reopen until 8 October, to allow extra time to distribute hygiene and other preventive material to the schools.
There have now been no confirmed cases of Ebola in Nigeria for 10 days, although some 350 people remain under watch for symptoms of the virus in Lagos, and the oil city of Port Harcourt.