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02.10.2014 Sierra Leone

Britain asks for foreign help against Ebola in Sierra Leone

By Alice Ritchie, Jacques Klopp
British Ebola survivor William Pooley (L) talks with Sierra Leone's High Commissioner to Britain Edward Turay (C) and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (2nd R) at the Ebola conference in London, on October 2, 2014.  By Leon Neal (Pool/AFP)British Ebola survivor William Pooley (L) talks with Sierra Leone's High Commissioner to Britain Edward Turay (C) and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (2nd R) at the Ebola conference in London, on October 2, 2014. By Leon Neal (Pool/AFP)

London (AFP) - Britain asked for foreign help Thursday to battle Ebola in its former colony of Sierra Leone, as a charity warned that five people were infected every hour in the west African nation.

The plea was made at a London conference gathering ministers, diplomats and health officials from around 20 countries and world organisations. Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma had been due to attend but his plane broke down.

"The UK is leading and coordinating the response in Sierra Leone but we need international help," Britain's foreign minister, Philip Hammond, said after the meeting.

A British nurse who contracted Ebola while volunteering in Sierra Leone but survived thanks to treatment, Will Pooley, also attended.

The Save the Children charity urged international action to combat a "terrifying" rate of infection in Sierra Leone, which, with Liberia and Guinea, has been the centre of an unprecedented outbreak of Ebola since the start of the year.

"The scale of the Ebola epidemic is devastating and growing every day, with five people infected every hour in Sierra Leone last week," said chief executive Justin Forsyth.

"We need a coordinated international response," the charity said.

Britain has so far provided 143 new treatment beds and promised almost 600 more in the coming months. It is also piloting a way of providing basic care in the community that could eventually reach 10,000 people.

But Save the Children said this was not enough and urged other countries to join the fight, warning that the infection rate could rise to 10 people an hour by the end of the month.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 2,300 people have been infected and 622 have died from Ebola in Sierra Leone, out of a global toll of more than 7,000 infected and more than 3,300 killed.

- Aid cuts behind Ebola surge? -

Britain organised Thursday's half-day conference to raise awareness of the outbreak, share best practice and secure pledges of financial support or promises of medical staff.

Officials warn Sierra Leone is at a "tipping point", with a current rate of infection at 1.7, meaning that for every 10 people with Ebola, another 17 people become infected.

But the conference got off to a bad start when the plane due to deliver the guest of honour to London broke down.

"The chartered plane he was scheduled to fly on experienced significant technical difficulties prior to take-off," a Foreign Office spokesman told AFP.

The Liberian and Guinean ambassadors were on the list of participants as well as the Ghanaian deputy foreign minister and representatives from Nigeria, the United States, Canada, Cuba, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and many European Union nations.

Britain has pledged £125 million ($200 million, 160 million euros) to help the Ebola fight in Sierra Leone. But prior to the outbreak it had planned to cut aid to the country, according to a new parliamentary report.

The international development committee said the 2014-2015 budget for Sierra Leone and Liberia would have seen bilateral funding cut by 18.6 percent on the previous year.

"The scale of the Ebola crisis now unfolding in Sierra Leone and Liberia may well be connected to declining levels of international support," said committee chairman Malcolm Bruce.

A spokesman for Britain's development ministry said the report was "out of date" and noted the planned reduction in funding had been overtaken by events.

Britain has promised £5 million to support NGOs fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone, £20 million to improve public health services, and £100 million to deliver a wider "action plan".

This plan includes providing treatment but also training health workers and setting up a central command with military, humanitarian and medical experts to organise the response.