Monrovia (AFP) - Seventeen Ebola patients in Liberia who fled from a guarantine centre 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.
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."
- 'Cannibalistic rituals' -
In Monrovia, residents had opposed the creation of the quarantine centre, set up by health authorities in a part of the capital seen as an epicentre of the Ebola outbreak.
"We told them not to (build) their camp here. They didn't listen to us," said a young resident, who declined to give his name. "This Ebola business, we don't believe it."
Neighbouring Sierra Leone has also battled to get patients to comply with quarantine measures as myths spread about the virus.
On Sunday, a 25-year-old patient suspected of having Ebola broke out of his isolation centre "for about an hour" before being escorted back, said health ministry spokesman Yahya Tunis.
Last month thousands tried to storm the main Ebola hospital in the eastern city of Kenema, threatening to burn it down and remove patients.
Local police chief Alfred Karrow-Kamara said the panic was caused by a former nurse who reportedly told people in the nearby fish market that Ebola was a pretence for "carrying out cannibalistic rituals".
Some 1,500 police and soldiers have been deployed in the worst-hit areas of Sierra Leone to prevent raids, but they are powerless in the face of the suspicion and fear of poorly educated traditional communities.
Health workers' pleas that relatives stop bathing the dead -- who are highly contagious -- have also increased suspicions, as many in traditional communities see ritual washing as a way of honouring the departed.
Former Sierra Leone youth and education minister Lansana Nyallah, who lost nine of his family to the virus, tried to address myths about it head on, saying: "To those who still believe that Ebola does not exist, please take heed."
Folk cures for the disease have proliferated. In Nigeria two people died and some 20 were hospitalised after they ingested an excessive amount of salt believing it could prevent Ebola.
There have also been reports in Liberia of people drinking chlorine in the hope that it will keep the disease at bay.
The Ebola outbreak, the worst since the virus first appeared in 1976, has claimed 413 lives in Liberia, 380 in Guinea, 348 in Sierra Leone and four in Nigeria, according to the World Health Organization's latest figures released August 13.