MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Authorities were searching Monday for more than a dozen patients who abandoned an Ebola quarantine center in Liberia’s capital during looting this weekend, although several were again under observation, officials said.
Late Saturday, residents of Monrovia’s West Point slum attacked a quarantine center, where people were being monitored for possible infection with Ebola. The residents were angry that patients were brought to the holding center from other parts of Monrovia. In the wake of the violence, police were deployed outside at least one Ebola treatment center in Monrovia on Monday.
During the raid, 37 patients who might have Ebola left, many returning to their own communities, said government Information Minister Lewis Brown. So far, 20 have been brought back to two hospitals in the capital and authorities are still looking for the others, he said.
None of those who fled had been confirmed to have Ebola, and the process of screening them is continuing, Assistant Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah said.
Police said the looters stole bloody sheets and mattresses, which could carry the Ebola virus, which could fuel the spread of Ebola in a slum where at least 50,000 people live.
Authorities have struggled to contain the spread of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Brown called the break-in at the holding center the “greatest setback” so far. The disease has killed 1,145 of the more than 2,000 people sickened in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
Ebola is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, and there is no licensed treatment. 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.
Authorities have been forced to counter several misconceptions about the disease, including rumors of false cures, fears that the Western doctors sent to treat the sick were the source of infection and a lack of understanding about how it is spread. Initially, authorities said many sick people were hiding their symptoms and avoiding hospitals. But more recently, people have seemed more willing to go to health centers. In fact, many centers have struggled to keep up with the influx.
“It’s important to understand here that most of the people that went into this holding facility came there voluntarily,” said Brown. “They were forcibly removed by vandals and looters, not because they wanted to leave, so we are sure that they will return.”
He said authorities were hoping to reopen the West Point holding center again, but it was closed for the time being.
Authorities have also been trying to combat misunderstanding in the international community. Several airlines, including British Airways, Kenya Airways and regional carriers, have canceled flights to the region, despite the World Health Organization’s recommendation that no travel or trade bans be put in place.
Last month, a Liberian-American man infected with Ebola boarded a flight from Liberia to Nigeria and died days later; 11 people who came into contact with him have been infected.
Still, the International Air Transport Association cited the U.N. health agency’s advice and urged airlines on Monday to maintain service to countries affected by the disease.
WHO has said the risk of Ebola being spread through air travel is unlikely. Instead, it is urging countries with Ebola to screen anyone leaving the country – whether by air, sea or land – for fever and other symptoms of the disease. People with Ebola-like symptoms should not travel, except as part of a medical evacuation, it said.
Associated Press photographer Abbas Dulleh in Monrovia, Liberia, contributed to this report.