Authorities in Liberia urgently searched for 17 people on Monday who had fled an Ebola medical centre over the weekend when it was attacked by looters who stole blood-stained sheets and mattresses and took them into an enormous slum.
Health officials were combing Monrovia's West Point area that is home to at least 50,000 people in hopes of stopping the virus from spreading further in a country where more than 400 people already have died.
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The weekend chaos highlights the growing unease and panic in Liberia amid the mounting Ebola death toll and illustrates the risks of further instability in this deeply impoverished country where mistrust of the government runs high. In addition, health workers are complaining about a lack of protective gear. Treatment centres are viewed by many as a place where people go just to die.
"They are not happy with the way Ebola is being managed and the response that the government is providing," said Koala Oumarou, country director for the aid group Plan Liberia, which is helping the health ministry to raise awareness. "It's where the frustration is coming from."
Liberia's president already has declared a state of emergency, dispatching armed soldiers to enforce quarantines of infected areas. But little was done to stoop looters Saturday from invading the Ebola quarantine centre and taking items covered in bodily fluids that now could only further transmit the gruesome virus, witnesses said. Ebola is spread through direct contact with the blood, vomit, feces or sweat of sick people.
"This West Point situation really was our greatest setback since we started this fight, and we are working on making sure that we can correct that situation," Liberian Information Minister Lewis Brown told The Associated Press.
"We have learned a bit of bitter lesson here," he added.
Witnesses say an angry mob attacked the West Point facility, which was described as a "holding centre" for people who had been exposed to Ebola and were being monitored during an incubation period for signs of the disease. The looters took medical equipment, and mattresses and sheets that had bloodstains, said a senior police official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
"All between the houses you could see people fleeing with items looted from the patients," the official said, adding that he now feared "the whole of West Point will be infected."
Witnesses said the weekend crowd was angry about possible Ebola patients being brought into their area. None of those who fled had yet been confirmed to have Ebola, Assistant Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah said.
The ransacking of the holding centre is only the latest sign of anger among Liberians with the government's response to the crisis. Some health workers and burial teams also have faced aggression from communities who fear the corpses will sicken them. Others have held protests when bodies have not been collected from the streets fast enough.
Doctors Without Borders describes 'catastrophic' conditions
On Monday, police in riot gear provided security at a new treatment center being operated by Doctors Without Borders, which is also known by its French acronym, MSF.
Lindis Hurum, MSF's project coordinator in Liberia, has described the conditions on the ground there as "catastrophic."
"I think it needs a massive intervention from the international community," she said Monday of the mounting crisis. "This is something that goes way beyond the Liberian government and local authorities, and beyond what MSF can do. The scale is so big now and I think it will get even worse than it is today."
Authorities have struggled to contain the spread of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. So far, it has killed 1,145 of the more than 2,000 people sickened in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Meanwhile, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates said Monday it has disinfected one of its planes after health authorities there announced that a Nigerian woman who died after flying in to the capital, Abu Dhabi, may have been infected with the Ebola virus.
The health authority in Abu Dhabi said in a statement carried by state news agency WAM that the 35-year-old woman was travelling from Nigeria to India for treatment of advanced metastatic cancer.
Her health deteriorated while in transit at Abu Dhabi International Airport. As medics were trying to resuscitate her, they found signs that suggested a possible Ebola virus infection. The health authority noted, however, that her preexisting medical condition also could have explained her death.
Passenger screening in Ebola-affected countries
Medical staff treating the woman followed safety and precautionary measures in line with World Health Organization guidelines, the health authority statement added.
The UN health agency on Monday urged Ebola-affected countries to start screening all passengers leaving international airports, sea ports and major ground crossings.
The risk of the Ebola virus being transmitted during air travel is low because unlike infections such as influenza or tuberculosis, it is not spread by breathing air and airborne particles from an infected person, the World Health Organization said. Nonetheless, all travellers are urged to routinely wash their hands and anyone with an illness consistent with the virus should not be allowed to travel unless it is part of an appropriate medical evacuation.
Etihad Airways, the UAE's national carrier, said the plane was disinfected in line with guidelines laid out by the airline industry's main trade group.
Elsewhere, the husband of an American missionary stricken with Ebola has finished a health monitoring period without showing signs of the disease and was able to visit his wife at the Atlanta hospital where she is being treated, a missionary group said on Monday.
David Writebol was temporarily quarantined in North Carolina as a precaution after returning last week from Liberia, where he and his wife, Nancy, served as missionaries for SIM USA before she was infected with the deadly virus.
There is no licensed treatment for the Ebola virus. The only way to contain the disease is to isolate the sick and closely watch those they have come into contact with for signs of infection.