Doctors, Western aid workers, and government officials in West Africa attempting to combat the growing Ebola epidemic are fighting not just the virus itself, but an intense distrust from villagers who believe the virus is a product of Western medicine and who attack any aid worker who attempts to come near them.
The Ebola virus struck first in the heart of Guinea, spreading to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and–as of this week–Nigeria. Groups like Doctors without Borders, the Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse, and others have deployed dozens of medical workers, more than one hundred of whom have contracted Ebola themselves, working with top government and health administration officials to contain the threat. Treating those infected has become extraordinarily difficult, however, as villagers have begun to believe that the medical staff themselves are responsible for the disease.
Speaking to The New York Times, one Guinean youth leader explained that he would not let any Doctors without Borders workers pass through his town because, he said, “Wherever those people have passed, the communities have been hit by illness.” The Times notes that villagers in some towns react with violence to aid workers, while others simply run away. In one town, “when a Westerner passes, villagers cry out, ‘Ebola, Ebola!’ and run away.” In other more-hostile areas, the Times reports that medical workers “have been threatened with knives, stones and machetes, their vehicles sometimes surrounded by hostile mobs.”
The attacks on aid workers are not new; in April, an angry mob in Guinea attacked an Ebola treatment center run by Doctors without Borders in an attempt to get the organization to leave the country. According to NBC, that incident involved a crowd of young villagers who accused them of bringing Ebola to the country, rather than attempting to eliminate it. But the incidents of distrust are growing and raising alarm among those working to end Ebola’s spread.
The situation is not limited to the population of Guinea. While Liberia, whose urban areas have been impacted severely by the Ebola virus, has not seen as many problems with villager violence, individual mourners have caused problems. In one instance, a man who had recently lost his brother to Ebola attempted to set fire to Liberia’s health ministry building in the capital, Monrovia.
The hesitation to procure the aid of workers trained to handle the deadly disease has many roots. As Ashoka Mukpo writes in Vice, the belief in traditional herbalist healers and “magic” has contributed significantly to the distrust. Many in Liberia, particularly, believe that Ebola is a curse, not a proper disease, and that treating it with magic is the only way to stop it. That Ebola can have up to a 90% kill rate and most who are hospitalized never make it out only add to the belief that health workers, and not the virus, are to blame for the disease.
The World Health Organization has set up a hotline to answer questions from individuals too afraid of the disease to interact with health workers, where they can ask questions such as, “Will mangos give me Ebola?” and “Can condensed milk prevent Ebola contamination?” But with more than 1,000 individuals diagnosed and more than 600 killed by the disease thus far, the struggle to eradicate the virus promises to be an extensive one.