LOLA, Guinea (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Red Cross pickups crawl through the streets of the Guinean town of Lola in search of Ebola victims, crowds of women gather to shoo the medical workers away, young boys throw stones and angry men reach for their machetes.
In the country where West Africa’s Ebola outbreak began, hostility towards aid workers - fueled by ever more far-fetched rumors - is undermining efforts to contain the deadly virus.
“People tell us if we don’t leave they’ll beat us up, or smash up the car,” said Paquile Zoglelemou, head of the Red Cross in Lola, a town set in thick, tropical jungle in the deep southeast of Guinea near the Liberian border.
Concerns about violence directed at aid teams comes as the number of new cases of Ebola rose at the start of February in all three of West Africa’s worst-hit countries - Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - ending previously encouraging declines.
In Lola, a market town with houses of mud brick and tin roofs, a spate of new Ebola cases in recent weeks has stoked fear and mistrust. Despite government efforts to inform people about the virus, false rumors and conspiracy theories win out.
One rumor holds that Western governments have planted the virus, another that spraying of disinfectants is actually a means of infecting others, and even that Ebola treatment centers are used for the extraction and trafficking of human organs.
“The Red Cross wants to kill us,” said Lah Wiemou, an elder in the village of Ouye, near Lola. “They put the virus in the water and spray it around the village, or when they take away the sick, the medication they give them contains Ebola.”
The Ebola epidemic has killed nearly 9,000 people in West Africa over the last year, more than 1,900 of them in Guinea.
Resistance to aid efforts has made it hard to isolate and treat patients, trace their contacts and safely bury the dead, key to preventing another flare up.
“They set up barricades to stop us leaving. Some threw large stones that broke the car windshield, and others ran home to get their machetes,” said Saa Yola Tolno, the top local official in Lola, who accompanied a Red Cross convoy at the weekend.
Some communities still hide their sick and secretly bury their dead, despite high transmission risks during traditional funeral rites, which involve washing and preparing the body.
Forecariah, a town southeast of the capital Conakry, is another hotbed of resistance. Here, Red Cross teams drive unmarked cars, their iconic symbol viewed with suspicion by a fearful population.
Responding to a tip-off via the national Ebola hotline, a team of eight Red Cross workers approaches a man lying motionless under a village water tower.
A slight movement indicates he’s still alive, but barely.
“We’ll take him to the Ebola transit center in Forecariah,” said Alain Kapete, who leads the French Red Cross team in the town. “If he has Ebola, we’ll have to come back and trace everyone that came into contact with him.”
The team’s presence draws attention. A crowd gathers.
“They spray the virus in the village,” one man says. “That’s why we’re getting sick.”
The dissenter is hushed by the village chief and the team gets to work. They kit up in full protective clothing, lift the man into an ambulance and disinfect the area.
“We now prepare the disinfectant in front of them so they can see we are adding bleach,” said Kapete.
Just the night before, the team had escaped an attack in the town of Sikhourou, near Forecariah, they said. Had it not been for the heavily armed escort of a minister passing through, things could have turned violent.
Attitudes have changed little since the Thomson Reuters Foundation first reported attacks on Ebola health workers 10 months ago in the southeastern town of Macenta.
In Coyah in western Guinea locals attacked aid workers in January when they tried to spray disinfectant around a mosque, said the emergency evacuation service International SOS.
The police used teargas to disperse the crowd, the organization said in a memo to its members.
In Kaback, south of the capital, residents attacked health workers when they tried to add disinfectants to wells, acting on rumors they had come to spread Ebola. The aid workers were badly beaten, said International SOS.
Guinea’s government on Jan. 10 set a 60-day target to completely eradicate the disease, but resistance to containment efforts paints a disturbing picture, say health workers on the ground.
“I think that we should consider ourselves lucky and fortunate if we are able to stop it in 2015,” said Birte Hald, who leads the Ebola unit of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Editing by Ros Russell