Ebola Treatment Center Attacked; Infected Patients Scatter

One of the most dangerous aspects of the killer disease is that many in West Africa don’t even believe it exists.

Liberian police depart after firing shots in the air when a mob forced open the gates of the facility in Monrovia, Liberia. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

The Ebola epidemic got a terrifying boost this weekend when a band of club-wielding men attacked a quarantine center for victims of the disease in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, sending at least 17 infected patients scurrying into a densely populated slum, reports BBC News. If that weren’t bad enough, the mob also looted the center, running off with potentially infected blood-stained mattresses and bedding.

“They broke down the door and looted the place. The patients have all gone,” witness Rebecca Wesseh told Agence France-Presse. Though some press reports say mob members were angry that Ebola patients were being brought into their neighborhood, Wesseh said they believed the disease was a hoax, shouting that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf “is broke” and “she wants money. There’s no Ebola” in Liberia.

“This is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in my life,” a senior police official told BBC News. Authorities now fear that the virus could spread throughout the West Point area of the city, home to an estimated 50,000 people.

Considering that Liberia has already suffered at least 413 deaths from the disease, this level of denial and ignorance may seem astonishing. But the attack wasn’t an isolated incident. All across West Africa, health care workers are being assaulted by people who believe the disease doesn’t exist or that the doctors themselves are causing it. That ignorance is prompting untold numbers of potentially infected people to stay away from hospitals.

All of this makes the outbreak much harder to control. There’s no cure for Ebola, so the only way to stop its spread is by isolating people who have it and those whom they’ve come into contact with. That becomes close to impossible if victims refuse to seek treatment.

In response, the desperate governments of hard-hit Sierra Leone and Liberia have cordoned off whole swaths of their countries. As a result, The Guardian reports, “hunger is spreading fast as farmers die, leaving crops rotting in fields. Truckers scared of the highly infectious disease are halting deliveries, and shops are closing.” The United Nations is considering emergency food drops into those areas. Meanwhile, some airlines are suspending flights to the affected countries. The unprecedented Ebola outbreak has killed at least 1,145 people in the last five months, according to the World Health Organization’s latest figures.

There’s one piece of potential good news about the epidemic this week. Three infected African doctors are finally being given ZMapp, the experimental Ebola drug that previously was only given to two Americans and a Spaniard.

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