Liberian officials fear Ebola could soon spread through the capital’s largest slum after residents raided a quarantine center for suspected patients and took items including blood-stained sheets and mattresses.
Local witnesses told Agence France Presse that there were armed men among the group that attacked the clinic.
As many as 29 potentially Ebola-infected patients fled, the news agency reported.
“They broke down the doors and looted the place. The patients all fled,” said Rebecca Wesseh, who witnessed the attack and whose report was confirmed by residents and the head of Health Workers Association of Liberian, George Williams.
The violence in the West Point slum occurred late Saturday and was led by residents angry that patients were brought from other parts of the capital to the holding center, Tolbert Nyenswah, assistant health minister, said Sunday.
West Point residents went on a “looting spree,” stealing items from the clinic that were likely infected, said a senior police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press.
The residents took mattresses, sheets and blankets that had bloodstains, which could spread the infection. Liberian police restored order to the West Point neighborhood, which is home to an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 poor Liberians. Health officials say they fear the looting incident will spread Ebola infections in the capital, Monrovia.
The attack comes just one day after a report of a crowd of several hundred local residents, chanting, ‘No Ebola in West Point,’ drove away a burial team and their police escort that had come to collect the bodies of suspected Ebola victims in a slum in the capital, Reuters reports. The mob then forced open an Ebola isolation ward and took several patients out, many saying that the Ebola epidemic is a hoax.
The isolation center, a closed primary school originally built by USAID, was being used by the Liberian health ministry to temporarily isolate people suspected of carrying the virus, Reuters reports. Some 10 patients had “escaped” the building the night before, according to a nurse, as the center had no medicine to treat them.
While the armed attack is likely the most brazen attack on health workers trying to contain the deadly outbreak, it is far from the first in the region worst-hit by it.
There have been numerous reports of locals attacking those trying to stop the disease by throwing stones at aid workers, blocking aid convoys and forcibly removing patients from clinics. Many locals blame foreigners for bringing the disease, saying it had never been there before they arrived.
The mistrust of central government and help from outside runs deep in this part of West Africa. All three countries worst-hit by the outbreak — Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea — are relatively fresh off decades of either brutal civil war or iron-fisted dictatorships.
The Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 1,100 people in West Africa could last another six months, the Doctors Without Borders charity group said Friday. One aid worker acknowledged that the true death toll is still unknown.
New figures released by the World Health Organization showed that Liberia has recorded more Ebola deaths – 413 – than any of the other affected countries.
Tarnue Karbbar, who works for the aid group Plan International in northern Liberia, said response teams simply aren’t able to document all the erupting Ebola cases. Many of the sick are still being hidden at home by their relatives, who are too fearful of going to an Ebola treatment center.