Liberian officials fear Ebola could soon spread through the capital's largest slum after residents raided a quarantine centre for suspected patients and took items including bloody sheets and mattresses.
The violence in the West Point slum occurred late Saturday and was led by residents angry that patients were brought to the holding centre from other parts of Monrovia, Tolbert Nyenswah, assistant health minister, said Sunday.
- The evolution of the Ebola epidemic, CBC-TV's The National
- Ebola outbreak: it's not the virus but Africa that's changed
Up to 30 patients were staying at the centre and many of them fled at the time of the raid, said Nyenswah. Once they are located they will be transferred to the Ebola centre at Monrovia's largest hospital, he said.
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 condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press. The residents took medical equipment and mattresses and sheets that had bloodstains, he said.
Ebola is spread through bodily fluids including blood, vomit, feces and sweat.
"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."
Some of the looted items were visibly stained with blood, vomit and excrement, said Richard Kieh, who lives in the area.
The incident raises fears of new infections in Liberia, which was already struggling to contain the outbreak.
Liberian police restored order to the West Point neighbourhood. Sitting on land between the Montserrado River and the Atlantic Ocean, West Point is home to at least 50,000 people, according to a 2012 survey produced by groups including the Liberia Peacebuilding Office and the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission.
Distrust of government runs high, with rumours regularly circulating that officials plan to clear the slum out entirely.
Though there had been talk of putting West Point under quarantine should Ebola break out there, assistant health minister Nyenswah said Sunday no such step had been taken. "West Point is not yet quarantined as being reported," he said.
Kenya bars travellers from Ebola-hit countries
Ebola has killed 1,145 people in West Africa, including 413 in Liberia, according to the World Health Organization.
In East Africa, the Kenyan government took steps to prevent the disease from spreading. Kenya will bar passengers travelling from three West African countries hit by the Ebola outbreak, closing a debate in East Africa's economic powerhouse about whether the national airline was exposing the country to the deadly disease.
The suspension is effective midnight Tuesday for all ports of entry for people travelling from or through Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, said Kenya's Health Ministry. Nigeria was not included in the ban, which also allows entry to health professionals and Kenyans returning from those countries.
"This step is in line with the recognition of the extraordinary measures urgently required to contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa," the Health Ministry said. It cited the World Health Organization's recent statement that the magnitude of the Ebola outbreak has been underestimated.
Following the government's announcement Saturday, Kenya Airways said it would suspend flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Kenya Airways, a major transport provider in Africa, had wrestled with the decision whether to continue flying to West Africa during the Ebola outbreak. Its suspension of flights is an abrupt reversal of its announcement Friday that it would continue flying.
Social commentators, medical experts and Kenyan politicians said they feared the airline was putting profits ahead of prudence, and that KQ, as the airline is known, would spread Ebola. The airline flies more than 70 flights a week to West Africa.
Several airlines have already suspended flights to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, including British Airways, Emirates Airlines, Arik Air and ASKY Airlines. Nigeria became the fourth Ebola-affected country late last month after a Liberian-American man sick with the disease flew to Lagos on an ASKY flight and infected several people before he died.
Officials in Cameroon, which borders Nigeria, announced Friday it would suspend all flights from all four Ebola-affected countries. Korean Air announced on Thursday it would temporarily halt its service to Kenya despite the fact there are no cases of Ebola in the country.