Ebola casts pall over Eid holiday in West Africa

The usual fields and squares where people gather to pray on Eid al-Adha were empty

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The raging Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 3,400 people in West Africa cast a pall Saturday over celebrations in the region of Eid, one of Islam's most important holidays.

In Guinea, where an estimated 85 percent of the 11 million people are Muslim, the day appeared almost as any other. The usual fields and squares where people gather to pray on Eid al-Adha were empty, as people heeded their government's warning to avoid large gatherings. People slaughtered their sheep - the traditional rite of Eid - in small groups at home, rather than at the usual large parties. Merchants complained that few people bought new clothes, as is typical for the holiday, called Tabaski in many parts of West Africa.

“Look at how people are unkempt, poorly dressed, Have you ever seen Tabaski celebration like this? I never have,” said Mamoudou Conde, a 28-year-old who sells car parts in Conakry, Guinea's capital. “Merchants had to slash their prices on holiday clothes. They had no clients.”

In Sierra Leone, which also has a sizable Muslim population among its 6 million people, the United Council of Imams warned believers not to shake hands or embrace. It was a reminder that even on holidays, the Health Ministry's “ABC” guidelines - Avoid Bodily Contact - must be followed.

Ebola spreads through contact with the bodily fluids of the sick, and with no licensed treatment available, the only way to stop an outbreak is to completely isolate those who are infected. But with more than 7,400 people believed infected - most of them in countries with woefully inadequate health systems at the best of times - there are far more sick people than beds in isolation units to treat them.

In a bid to stop the spread, the hardest-hit countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have all issued similar rules, encouraging people to keep their distance and wash their hands frequently. The disease has also touched Nigeria and Senegal, but neither country has had a new infection in weeks. The United States confirmed its first case, in a traveler from Liberia, this week.

“Ebola is undermining the very foundations of our traditions,” said Idrissa Sall, a 32-year-old driver in Conakry. “How can I greet my parents, my children when I'm barred from giving kisses?”

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