Seventeen Ebola patients are missing after fleeing an attack on an isolation ward in Monrovia by armed youths claiming the epidemic does not exist, training the spotlight on the struggle to raise awareness in the fight against the deadly virus.
“They broke down the door and looted the place. The patients have all gone,” said Rebecca Wesseh, who witnessed the attack in a badly hit area on the outskirts of the Liberian capital.
The attackers, mostly young men armed with clubs, shouted that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf “is broke” and “there’s no Ebola”, she said.
The head of Health Workers Association of Liberia, George Williams, said the unit housed 29 patients who “had all tested positive for Ebola” and were receiving preliminary treatment before being taken to hospital.
“Of the 29 patients, 17 fled last night (after the assault). Nine died four days ago and three others were yesterday taken by force by their relatives” from the centre, he said.
The raid is a dramatic illustration of aid workers’ warnings about denial of Ebola in some of the worst-affected areas in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Last month thousands tried to storm Sierra Leone’s main Ebola hospital in Kenema and threatened to burn it down and remove patients.
Local police chief Alfred Karrow-Kamara said the panic was caused by a former nurse who reportedly told people in the nearby fish market that Ebola was a pretence for “carrying out cannibalistic rituals”.
In Monrovia, residents had opposed the creation of the attacked quarantine centre, set up by health authorities in an part of the Liberian capital seen as an epicentre of the Ebola outbreak.
“We told them not to (build) their camp here. They didn’t listen to us,” said a young resident, who declined to give his name. “We don’t believe in this Ebola outbreak.”
By snatching infected loved ones from clinics, relatives further spread the disease.
Some 1,500 police and soldiers have been deployed in the worst-hit areas of Sierra Leone to prevent raids, but they are powerless in the face of the suspicion and fear of poorly educated traditional communities.
Health workers pleas that relatives stop bathing of the dead — who are highly contagious — has also increased suspicions, as in many traditional communities see ritual bathing as a way of honouring the dead.
Doctors and nurses are fighting not just the disease, but also the distrust of communities often in the thrall of wild rumours that the virus was invented by whites in the West to keep Africans down.
Former Sierra Leone youth and education minister Lansana Nyallah, who lost nine of his family to the virus, tried to address the myth head on, saying, “To those who still believe that Ebola does not exist, please take heed.”
Hare-brained and folk cures for the disease have proliferated. In Nigeria two people died and about 20 were hospitalised after they ingested an excessive amount of salt which they believed could prevent Ebola.
There have also been reports in Liberia of people drinking chlorine in the hope that it will keep the disease at bay.
The Ebola outbreak, the worst since the virus first appeared in 1976, has claimed 1,145 lives in five months, according to the UN World Health Organization’s latest figures as of August 13: 413 in Liberia, 380 in Guinea, 348 in Sierra Leone and four in Nigeria. SAPA