Freetown: Sierra Leone launched a nationwide three-day shutdown on Friday to contain the deadly spread of an Ebola epidemic described by the UN Security Council as a threat to world peace.
Most of Sierra Leone`s six million people were confined to their homes from midnight (0000 GMT), with only essential workers such as health professionals and security forces exempt.
"These are extraordinary times and extraordinary times require extraordinary measures," said Sierra Leone President Ernest Koroma, launching the campaign with a televised address to the nation.
Almost 30,000 volunteers began door-to-door rounds to educate locals and hand out soap, in an exercise expected to lead to scores more patients and bodies being discovered in homes.
Streets across Freetown, normally a chaotic city of 1.2 million people, emptied from midnight and by dawn the echo of rain on tin roofs and the rumble of thunder had replaced the usual blare of motorbike horns.
"Everyone seems to be complying and this is very good. This is an important way to fight Ebola. We expect everyone to stay at home," Freetown police chief Francis Munu told AFP.
Shops and offices were shut across the city, and only emergency vehicles plied streets which are normally jammed with traffic throughout the day.
"Ose to Ose Ebola Tok" -- "House-to-House Ebola Talk" in the widely-spoken Krio language -- will see more than 7,000 volunteer teams of four visiting the country`s 1.5 million homes over the coming days.The shutdown has been criticised by aid agencies including Doctors Without Borders and Action Against Hunger, which say keeping people indoors could prevent them accessing urgent care while the campaign could erode trust in the authorities.
But the UN children`s agency UNICEF, which is funding most of the $1.3 million operation, said it would prove indispensible in reaching the largest number of people with vital information and guidance on preventing Ebola.
"We have been sending life-saving messages through radio, TV and print, but it`s not enough," said Roeland Monasch, UNICEF`s local representative.
"We need to take information to where people are."
The move comes amid mounting global concern over the Ebola epidemic, which has so far killed more than 2,600 people in west Africa.
Paranoia is so rife that in Guinea eight people sent to educate villagers in the south were found dead on Tuesday after coming under attack from locals who apparently feared the delegation meant them harm.
The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution late Thursday declaring that the "unprecedented extent of the Ebola outbreak in Africa constitutes a threat to international peace and security".
Ebola fever can fell its victims within days, causing severe muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and -- in some cases -- unstoppable internal and external bleeding.
More than 550 people have died from the disease in Sierra Leone alone, one of the three hardest-hit nations alongside Guinea and Liberia.
Across Freetown residents waited on their porches for the arrival of the health teams who began their rounds at 7:15 am.
The government has said the volunteers will not enter people`s homes but will call emergency services to deal with patients or bodies of which they become aware."We are here to talk to you about Ebola and to find out how much you know about the disease, what you should do about its prevention and -- if anyone is sick in the family -- to take him or her to the nearest clinic," team leader Tommy Sackey told one household in the west of the city.
Smiling broadly, the head of the family, Sammy Jones, offered the team a seat on the porch while summoning his wife and three children "to come listen to the crucial message on Ebola".
"The family is now in a better position (with) the disease," Sackey told AFP after handing out stickers and soap.
Shipping clerk Francis Coker, who had volunteered to lead another team in central Freetown, told AFP the response to the campaign had been encouraging.
"So far the most frequently asked questions to our team have been about stigmatisation and untested drugs. It shows that people are aching for a cure," he said.
Steven Gaojia, who is coordinating the shutdown, told reporters 258 extra beds had been set up in makeshift treatment centres across Freetown in anticipation of the campaign uncovering dead bodies and new cases in people`s homes.
Across the country, "Ose to Ose" teams trekked bush paths to reach remote villages to spread the message.
"Ebola has uniquely brought people of all shades of opinion together," said Mamud Sherriff, a resident of Bo, the country`s second city.
"Since early dawn many teams have left the city, reaching out to villages and talking to families using their local dialect."