When Guinean government officials visited the village of Womme in the country’s southeast, they planned to educate people about Ebola and show them how to avoid it — in a region where many still believe the virus doesn’t exist.
But it all went disastrously wrong.
Villagers responded furiously, pelting the delegation with stones and beating the visitors with clubs, according to Guinean radio. The delegation, which included doctors and journalists, fled into the bush after the attack Tuesday.
The Guinean government said Thursday that eight delegation members had been killed, including several journalists, news agencies reported. There also were reports that 21 people had been injured.
“It's very sad and hard to believe, but they were killed in cold blood by the villagers,” government spokesman Albert Damantang Camara said, according to Agence France-Presse.
A local police officer, Richard Haba, said the villagers believed that Ebola “is nothing more than an invention of white people to kill black people.”
The incident underscores the challenges for local and international health teams fighting the Ebola virus in West Africa.
Womme is outside the town of Nzerekore, which saw a similar protest in recent weeks.
Since Ebola was first reported in this region in March — perhaps surfacing as early as December — medical agencies have experienced resistance from some residents. Doctors Without Borders, the main agency working in West Africa to stem Ebola, said it couldn’t work in at least 10 villages because of hostility among residents.
The World Health Organization announced Thursday that 2,622 people had died in West Africa, mostly 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 people no place to seek help for other ailments such as malaria, to give birth, or even to get treatment for broken limbs.
Many health workers have fled their posts, afraid to work where the disease has killed hundreds of doctors, nurses and hygienists.
One reason the outbreak spread out of control in West Africa was fear of an incurable disease that kills more than half those infected and suspicion of outsiders who came to take Ebola patients to hospitals. There was also alarm over warnings that people should abandon long, deeply held and important burial rituals, such as washing the bodies of the dead.
In Guinea’s southeast, a search team was sent to track down the delegation after the attack in Womme, but villagers destroyed a bridge to keep police or the military out, according to national radio.
“A team has been dispatched to verify more information,” government spokesman Damantang Camara told Reuters.
A 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 as saying that the delegation was attacked after medical workers sprayed disinfectant to control the spread of the virus in public places.
The assault followed 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 that it was a conspiracy to infect the population.
In Sierra Leone, government officials 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 that one of its workers caring for Ebola patients in isolation wards was diagnosed with the virus two days earlier and that it took too long to evacuate her.
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 worker, a Frenchwoman, came from the U.S. He called on the European Union and other nations to station an evacuation plane in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, 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.
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