Days after a team of officials went missing while visiting a village in Guinea in a bid to raise awareness about Ebola, officials confirmed late Thursday that all nine members were killed by local villagers. In August, MS Risk analysts warned that attacks on Ebola workers in West Africa may spark similar reactions to those carried out against polio workers, in which a number of volunteers have been killed while administering polio vaccinations. This death of nine members of a team attempting to raise awareness about Ebola signifies that the threat to health workers and local authorities trying to combat the disease is high, and will likely intensify as the virus continues to spread. Further such incidents will be likely be reported in the affected countries. Steps to combat myths about the disease, which are common across the region, must be taken in order to ensure health workers’ safety and to curb the virus’ spread.
On Tuesday the group of nine Guineans, which included two journalists, local officials and several health workers, fled the village of Wome, located in the southern Nzerekore region, after their group was pelted with stones. A journalist who managed to escape later told officials that she could hear villages looking for the group while she was hiding. On Wednesday a government delegation, led by the country’s health minister Remy Lamah, had been dispatched to the region however they were unable to reach the village by road as the main bridge was blocked.
Officials disclosed Friday that seven of the bodies were located in a septic tank in a village school near the city of Nzerekore while the other two were located in the bush. According to officials, the bodies showed signs of being attacked with machetes and clubs. Six people have been arrested, with on the ground sources reporting that the village is now deserted. According to local police officials, at least 21 people were wounded during the unrest. While the motive for the killings has not been confirmed, it is believed that the villagers’ suspicions of officials attempting to combat the disease lead to the group being attacked and its members murdered. Many Guineans believe that local and foreign health workers are part of a conspiracy, which either deliberately introduced the outbreak, or invented it as a means of luring Africans to clinics in order to harvest their blood and organs. Some still do not believe that the disease exists despite more than 2,600 people killed by the virus.
In recent weeks, tensions have been rising across West Africa as the Ebola epidemic continues to rise. A number of incidents of frustrated civilians attacking local officials have been reported however this is the first incident in which officials were killed for attempting to combat the deadly virus. Last month, riots erupted in Nzerekore, Guinea, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Wome, after rumours emerged that medics who were disinfecting a market were contaminating people. There have also been a number of reports of people in the region refusing to cooperate with health authorities over fears that a diagnosis means certain death.
Myths such as these have emerged over the past few months and have greatly impacted the spread of the current outbreak. Officials at the World Health Organisation (WHO) have confirmed that the already difficult conditions are made more difficult by public misunderstand caused by “rumours on social media claiming that certain products or practices can prevent or cure Ebola Virus Disease.” Such myths have not only impacted Guinea, but other countries, including Nigeria, where at least two people died as a result of drinking salt water after stories circulated that doing so would protect against the deadly disease. Other supposed cures for the virus include raw onions, coffee, condensed milk and holy water. Some civilians have opted to hide infected family members at home, or prefer to take them to local doctors instead of an Ebola treatment centre. Health officials in Sierra Leone disclosed in August that the Ebola outbreak spread from Guinea after an herbalist in the remote eastern border village of Sokoma claimed to have powers to heal the deadly virus. Officials have since confirmed that the virus spread in Sierra Leone after cases from Guinea cross over the border, seeking treatment.
Fears over the deadly virus have also sparked riots and attacks on health workers. As the Ebola outbreak continues, such attacks may spark similar reactions to those carried out against polio workers.
At the start of the outbreak, a team from MSF had to stop working at an isolation ward in Guinea after local residents mistakenly believed that they had brought the virus with them. Groups of health workers from MSF, the Red Cross and from the ministry of health have been pelted with rocks as they attempted to reach Ebola-hit areas. In Liberia, a number of Ebola patients escaped a healthcare facility after it was attacked by rioters. Due to the region’s recent history of bloody civil war, some believe that the army’s deployment to control the affected areas is a sign that the government is deliberately infecting people in a bid to have an excuse to enforce martial law.
The first cases of the Ebola virus have been confirmed in Liberia, after spreading from neighboring Guinea, where the deadly virus has already killed eighty-four people. Meanwhile in Mali, officials are on high alert after three suspected cases were reported near the border area with Guinea.
Fears Virus Has Spread to Mali
Officials in Mali on Thursday indicated that they had detected three suspected victims of the Ebola virus, the deadly disease that has killed 84 people in Guinea. Speaking to reporters in Bamako, Mali’s Health Minister Ousmane Kone stated that “three suspected cases of hemorrhagic fever have been detected in the country. Samples have been taken and sent abroad for analysis.” The Health Minister added that pending results from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where the samples were sent, the patients were isolated and were receiving appropriate medication. A statement issued by the government has indicated that the patients’ condition was currently improving and that the results of the tests will be made public as soon as they are known.
Ebola Outbreak Confirmed in Liberia
Seven new patients has brought the total suspected Ebola cases in Liberia to fourteen. Since reporting its first case of the hemorrhagic fever last month, six people have died, however officials in Liberia indicated Thursday that the first suspected Ebola case is now thought to be unconnected to the ongoing epidemic in neighboring Guinea, noting that the case may have originated separately within its borders.
According to Liberia’s chief medical officer Bernice Dahn, “we have a case in Tapeta where a hunter who has not had any contact with anyone coming from Guinea got sick,” adding “he was rushed to the hospital and died 30 minutes later. He never had any interaction with someone suspected to be a carrier of the virus and he has never gone to Guinea. This is an isolated case.” If confirmed, the case in the eastern town of Tapeta would mark a worrying development in the fight against Ebola, as cases so far have been attributed to people returning with the infection from neighboring Guinea, where 84 people have died. Tapeta, a small town in the eastern country of Nimba, is located 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in southern Guinea. It is also at least a five-hour drive and much further from the border than other suspected cases.
Of the six deaths, two were laboratory-confirmed Ebola cases – a woman who died in hospital in the northern county of Lofa and her sister who visited her. The sister was allowed to return home to Monrovia before being hospitalized in the nearby Firestone Hospital. Local authorities had isolated her and were monitoring her, her family and others with whom she may have had contact however Mr Dahn has since indicated that “…after being confirmed Ebola virus positive, the lady died this morning.” He added that “we are now keeping surveillance on 44 people who have been in contact with the cases reported.” The fruit bat, which is thought to be the host of the highly contagious Ebola virus, is a delicacy in the region that straddles Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with experts suspecting huntsmen to be the source of the outbreak.
The outbreak in Guinea had initially centered in the country’s remote south-eastern Forest Region of Nzerekore, where it took officials six weeks to identify the disease, effectively allowing it to spread over the borders and into the more populous regions of the country. The first symptoms experienced were of a feverish sickness and they were observed on February 9. The mysterious disease claimed at least 23 lives, out of a total of 36, before officials were able to identify it. Since then, the outbreak has continued to spread, with officials confirming last week that it had spread to the capital, Conakry, which is a sprawling city of two million.
On Sunday, Guinea’s Health Ministry indicated that the country was now dealing with 122 “suspicious cases” of viral hemorrhagic fever, including at least 80 deaths. However not all of the cases have been confirmed as the Ebola virus. Medical Charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has since stated that the Ebola outbreak in Guinea is “unprecedented,” adding that the spread of the disease across the country made it very difficult to control. Guinea is now facing a battle to contain the outbreak after cases were reported in areas that are hundreds of kilometers apart.
Over the past weekend, there has been a growing concern that the outbreak of the deadly virus may spread throughout West Africa. According to Tarik Jasarevic, spokesman for the WHO, up to 400 people are identified as potential Ebola contacts in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Fears of the virus spreading further into West Africa prompted officials in Senegal to close the country’s normally busy border with Guinea. Senegal’s Health Minister Awa Maria Coll-Seck confirmed Monday that the government had decided to close its border with Guinea after receiving confirmation that the virus had reached the country’s capital city Conakry. According to Ms Coll-Seck, Senegal has also “…closed all weekly markets, known as luma, in the south. And we’re having some discussions with religious leaders regarding big religious events.”
Officials in Sierra Leone also reported last week some suspected cases of the Ebola virus however these have not yet been confirmed.
The Ebola virus, which is one of the world’s most virulent diseases, was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1976. The DRC has since had eight outbreaks of the disease, with the most recent epidemic, which occurred in the DRC between May and November 2012, infecting 62 people and leaving 34 dead. Although there have been previous outbreaks amongst humans in Uganda, the Republic of Congo and Gabon, the disease had never before been detected in people in West Africa. There have also been fears that the disease could one day be used in a biological weapons attack as, according to researches, the virus multiplies quickly, overwhelming the immune system’s ability to fight the infection.
If all cases in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali and Liberia are confirmed to be Ebola, this outbreak would be the most deadly epidemic since 187 people died in Luebo, in the Congo’s Kasai Orientale province in 2007.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), to date, no treatment or vaccine is available for Ebola, which kills between 25 and 90 percent of those who fall sick, depending on the strain of the virus. The Zaire strain of Ebola, which has a 90 percent death rate, is the one that has been detected in Guinea.
At least sixteen people have been burned alive or hacked to death with machetes, while dozens more have been wounded after two days of ethnic clashes took place in Guinea. Meanwhile in Mali, the body of French hostage Philippe Verdon, who was kidnapped in Mali in 2011 and found dead several weeks ago, has been flown back to Paris on Wednesday after tests confirmed his identity.
The violence in the West African state broke out in the southern forest region early on Monday when petrol station guards from the Guerze tribe in the town of Koule beat to death an ethnic Konianke youth whom they had accused of stealing. Fighting rapidly spread to the nearby provincial capital of N’Zerekore, which is located 570 kilometers (350 miles) southeast of Conakry. Several homes have been destroyed as a result of the fighting. According to Alert Damatang Camara, who is a government spokesman, “the violence recorded since Monday in Koule, and then in N’Zerekore, has left 16 people dead and some 80 wounded.” He further indicated that security forces have been deployed “en masse” to the affected regions and that calm was beginning to return to the streets. During a televised address to the nation, Guinea’s President called for calm and unity and has promised to bring those behind the violence to justice.
A number of witnesses have reported that members of the Guerzes and Koniankes tribes have been attacking one another with machetes, axes, sticks, stones and firearms, and that some of the houses and cars in the region had been set on fire. Communal violence has been common in the region, which is located near the border with Liberia, where clashes between the two tribes regularly break out over religious and other grievances. The indigenous Guerze are mostly Christian or animist, while the Konianke are Muslims who are considered to be close to Liberia’s Mandingo ethnic community. During Liberia’s civil war, which concluded in 2003, rebels fighting the forces of then-president Charles Taylor drew much of their support from the Mandingo community. The Guerze, who are known as Kpelle in Liberia, were generally considered to be supporters of forces who were loyal to Taylor who was jailed last year for “aiding and abetting” war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
According to sources on the ground in Paris, France, relatives and loved ones of Mr. Verdon gathered in a private room at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport in order to retrieve the body, which was flown back on an Air France plane that landed around 0700 GMT. The French foreign ministry had announced on Sunday that Mr. Verdon’s body had likely been found at the beginning of July. This is months later after the 53-year-old’s captors had announced in March that they had killed him, however at the time, officials in Paris had never confirmed his death. On Tuesday, the French president’s office confirmed that the body found in northern Mali was that of Mr. Verdon, however no information surrounding the details of his death have been released. An autopsy has been scheduled in order to determine exactly how he died. Mr. Verdon was known to have suffered from an ulcer and tachycardia when he had left for Mali in 2011. According Pascal Lupart, head of a support committee for Mr. Verdon, “for us, its possible that Philippe died because of his illnesses and that AQIM used this and staged a killing.”