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Attack on Ebola workers in Guinea reflects challenges fighting virus

Ebola has killed more than 2,600 people in West Africa, mainly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, according to the World Heath Organization.

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By ROBYN DIXON | Los Angeles Times (MCT) | Published: September 19, 2014

JOHANNESBURG — When Guinean government officials visited the village of Womme in the country’s southeast, they planned to educate people about Ebola and show people how to avoid it — in a region where many still believe the virus doesn’t exist.

But it all went disastrously wrong.

Members of the local population responded furiously, pelting the delegation with stones and beating them with clubs, according to Guinean radio. The delegation, which included doctors and journalists, fled into the bush after the attack Tuesday.

Radio reports said a local politician, two journalists and others hadn’t been heard from since they fled the attack.

Nine people are missing, according to Guinean government. Six members of the delegation were killed, according to local media, but government officials cannot confirm the report.

Twenty-one people were injured as youths attacked, stoning six cars, in an incident that underscores the challenges for local and international health teams fighting Ebola in West Africa.

Womme is outside the town of Nzerekore, which saw a similar protest in recent weeks.

Since Ebola surfaced in this region of Guinea in February (and perhaps as early as December), medical agencies have experienced resistance from some members of the population. Doctors Without Borders, the main agency working in West Africa to stem Ebola, declared there were at least 10 villages where it couldn’t work because of hostility from local people.

The World Health Organization announced Thursday that 2,622 people had died in West Africa, mainly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, out of more than 5,300 reported cases. The epidemic has put ramshackle local health systems under intense pressure, leaving local populations with nowhere to seek treatment for other ailments such as malaria, to give birth, or even seek treatment for broken limbs.

Many health workers have fled their posts, afraid to work in an environment that has killed hundreds of local doctors, nurses and hygienists.

One reason the outbreak spread out of control in West Africa was terror of an incurable disease that kills more than half those infected and suspicion of outsiders who came to bring Ebola patients to hospitals. There was also alarm at warnings they should abandon long, deeply held and important burial rituals, such as washing the bodies of the dead.

Dozens of infected people went underground, evading treatment, and spreading the infection. In Liberia, Monrovia, rumors initially spread that Ebola didn’t exist. An intensive government campaign, depicting symptoms on posters around the city, gradually changed attitudes there.

But as Liberians flocked to seek treatment, they confronted a severe shortage of beds. The WHO said 315 beds available in Liberia are meeting less than 20 percent of demand.

In Monrovia alone, 1,210 beds are needed, but only 240 are available.

In Guinea’s southeast, a search team was sent to track down the delegation after the attack in Womme, but villagers destroyed a bridge leading to the village to prevent police or the military from gaining access, according to national radio.

“A team has been dispatched to verify more information,” Guinean government spokesman Damantang Camara told Reuters.

One journalist who escaped the attack said she heard villagers hunting for delegation members, suggesting they may have been abducted, the BBC reported.

Guinean radio quoted one Womme resident saying that the delegation was attacked after medical workers sprayed disinfectant in order to control the spread of the virus in public places.

The assault follows similar attacks against medical workers or health officials in several other villages and towns in recent weeks. Last month, riots erupted after a medical team sprayed a marketplace in the same region as rumors spread it was a conspiracy to infect the population.

In Sierra Leone, government officials have ordered everyone to stay at home for three days in an effort to control the spread of the disease. International medical groups including Doctors Without Borders have criticized the measure, saying it will not contain the crisis.

Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders said Thursday it had taken too long to evacuate a French woman working with the organization caring for Ebola patients in isolation wards, and she has now contracted the virus and was diagnosed Tuesday.

Brice de le Vingne, operations manager for the organization, said there was an unacceptable delay of 42 hours because the only aircraft equipped to transport the woman had to fly from the U.S. He called for an evacuation plane to be stationed in Monrovia, the Liberian capital and epicenter of the epidemic, where most new cases are emerging.

The WHO has warned that 20,000 people could be infected before the disease is brought under control.

The International Monetary Fund has announced plans to provide loans of $127 million to the three worst affected countries, to help them cope with the crisis.

©2014 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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