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.