A woman being treated for Ebola in a Sierra Leone hospital died after family members forcibly removed her from the hospital to bring her to a trusted traditional herbalist. The incident is causing alarm in medical communities fighting the Ebola epidemic, as distrust of medical personnel could lead to a faster spread of the disease.
Reuters reports that the woman had succumbed to the disease recently and been brought to King Harman Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. Her family snuck into the hospital and stole her, triggering an extensive police search across the country. The disease grows increasingly contagious as the symptoms worsen and the patient discharges more blood; having a loose patient in an unknown location in the nation’s capital is akin to a biological weapon.
According to a senior doctor at the hospital, Amadu Sisi, the woman was found on Saturday and had been taken to a local herbalist for treatment. She was removed from the custody of her family after “a struggle ensued with the police,” but the time it took to extract the patient may have eliminated any chances of saving her. The woman died on the way to a different hospital, to which she was taken to keep her away from family.
The incident is the first high-profile case of its kind but highlights one of the biggest problems facing medical personnel working to fight the Ebola outbreak: a deep distrust of Western medicine and science. Villagers in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia have reacted to groups like Doctors without Borders and the Red Cross with hostility, believing that the medical aid teams themselves are bringing the disease to their towns. In some instances, villagers simply run away when they see a Western aid worker, but others have been actively violent. In April, an angry mob in Guinea attacked a Doctors without Borders office, alleging that the organization brought Ebola to their town.
In addition to threats of violence, medical workers face competition for patients’ trust with an assortment of traditional herbalists, healers, and witch doctors. Residents who believe Ebola is a disease believe in “cures” for the virus like eating raw onions and condensed milk, but many do not believe it is medical at all. Many in both Sierra Leone and Guinea believe the disease is a curse, curable only by magic, and refuse medical treatment, believing it to be hopeless; as The Economist explains: “Only a witch doctor can have the curse removed–for a fee.” Still others believe that Ebola is a myth created so that medical workers can carry out “cannibalistic rituals.”
Sierra Leone, where the runaway patient incident occurred, has experienced the deadliest outbreak of the disease yet, with 545 dead since March.