Seventeen Ebola patients in Liberia who fled from a quarantine center after it was attacked by club-wielding youths were missing on Sunday, striking a fresh blow to efforts to contain the deadly virus.
The attack on the Monrovia centre late Saturday highlighted the challenge faced by health authorities battling the epidemic that has killed 1,145 people since it erupted in west Africa early this year, spreading panic among local populations.
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Doctors and nurses are not only fighting the disease, but a deep mistrust in communities often in the thrall of wild rumours that the virus was invented by the West or is a hoax.
"They broke down the door and looted the place. The patients have all gone," said Rebecca Wesseh, who witnessed the raid in the Liberian capital's densely populated West Point slum.
The attackers, mostly young men armed with clubs, shouted insults about President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and yelled "there's no Ebola," she said, adding that nurses had also fled the centre.
A health ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the youths took away medicines, mattresses and bedding from the high school which had been turned into an isolation centre to deal with the rapidly spreading virus.
The head of the Health Workers Association of Liberia, George Williams, said the unit housed 29 patients who "had all tested positive for Ebola" and were receiving preliminary treatment before being taken to hospital.
"Of the 29 patients, 17 fled last night (after the assault). Nine died four days ago and three others were yesterday taken by force by their relatives" from the centre, he said.
Ebola is spread by contact with an infected person's bodily fluids, such as sweat and blood, and no cure or vaccine is currently available.
Victims in their final days are wracked by agonising muscular pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and catastrophic haemorrhaging described as "bleeding out," as vital organs break down.
Fallah Boima's son was admitted to the ward four days ago, and seemed to be doing well, but when the distraught father arrived for his daily visit on Sunday his son was nowhere to be seen.
"This morning I came and the security man told me that I cannot enter because the people here attacked the place," Boima told AFP.
"I don't know where he is and I am very confused. He has not called me since he left the camp. Now that the nurses have all left how will I know where my son is."