FREETOWN (AFP) - A former government minister in Sierra Leone said on Tuesday that he has lost nine members of his family to the Ebola epidemic raging in west Africa.
Lansana Nyallah told state television the dead included his brothers and sisters in the eastern village of Daru, at the epicentre of the outbreak.
"To those who still believe that Ebola does not exist, please take heed," the former youth and education minister told the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation.
Ebola has claimed 273 lives in Sierra Leone. Overall almost 900 people have been killed by the pathogen, which is spread through contact with bodily fluids, since this worst-ever outbreak began at the start of the year.
"Nine members of my family including my brothers and sisters are now dead from the virus," said Nyallah, who was replaced in a Cabinet reshuffle last year after several years in President Ernest Bai Koroma's government.
"One of them was an imam who was also a radio journalist working for a community radio station in Daru," he said
"Our house is now empty as no one lives there."
Described as a "molecular shark" in medical literature, Ebola causes extreme fever before breaking down its victims' internal organs, which bleed out through the body in the most severe cases.
Myths surrounding the virus have proved an obstacle to treatment and prevention in west Africa. Many indigenous people living in the forested border areas that straddle Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea believe the virus was introduced deliberately by outsiders, or is a fictional invention by the West, designed to subjugate them.
In Guinea, medical experts have been attacked by angry mobs, while in Sierra Leone and Liberia traditional communities have ignored warnings not to touch the bodies of the dead during funeral rituals.
"The confusion about Ebola which created the resistance from some people was due to the earlier messages which were both confusing and unreliable," Nyallah told the station.
"We were told that Ebola had no cure but were not told about the chances of survival if one reports early. We have now learnt more about the disease, especially about the body-to-body contact which increases transmission," he added.
Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency last week, quarantining Ebola-hit areas and cancelling foreign trips by ministers. The country observed a "stay at home day" on Monday as the government recalibrated its response to the outbreak.
In Kenema, a diamond mining town at the epicentre of the outbreak, 320km east of the capital Freetown, shops closed, miners abandoned their pits and the roads were empty of traffic.
"There is no panic and the area is calm. The situation is getting a bit better and there is greater awareness than before," said Foday Sajuma, the director of a community radio station in the nearby town of Kailahun.
"People are reporting cases of victims and they are doing so voluntarily."