MONROVIA (Reuters) - Health workers turned up in Monrovia’s Clara Town district on Sunday to remove two bodies of possible victims of the Ebola virus, four days after they dropped dead there when nobody would take them to hospital.
At a swampy field elsewhere in the Liberian capital, the health ministry ordered 100 graves to be dug for victims of the deadly tropical virus, but only five shallow holes partly filled with water had been prepared by Saturday evening.
Monrovia’s overcrowded and understaffed Elwa Hospital has had to turn away Ebola cases this week, a scenario exacerbated by the withdrawal of some international staff following the infection of two U.S. health workers here.
One of them has arrived for treatment in the United States and the second is due to follow on an overnight flight on Monday.
Strong resistance like this from workers too afraid to handle infected corpses or communities opposed to burying them nearby has slowed down stretched West African governments as they seek to control the worst Ebola outbreak in history.
The Ebola virus has killed 227 people so far in Liberia and at least 826 people in the region, according to the World Health Organization.
Nema Red, a resident of Clara Town, said the two men who lay dead in the street for days had shown symptoms of Ebola such as bleeding and vomiting.
“They started seeking help from the community to take them to the hospital, but community members ran for their lives ... they both gave up and dropped dead on the ground in the streets of Clara Town,” she said, saying they lay there four days.
Information Minister Lewis Brown confirmed the bodies had been collected but said they had only been there for a few hours. “They have been removed,” he said, adding their houses would be fumigated and relatives placed under surveillance.
Ebola, which is fatal in more than half of cases in the current outbreak, is transmitted by direct contact with the blood or fluids of the infected, including the dead.
Monrovia’s first burial site for 30 bodies, in the poor township of Johnsonville, was abandoned by health workers after the land owner refused to sell the land to bury Ebola victims.
A few of the corpses were left floating in body bags in pools of water, which led to complaints from the residents.
A local man, Bill Marshall, said residents had not been consulted before the cemetery was created. “Ebola, we don’t know where it came from and we don’t know its effect,” he said. “The grave will give us Ebola, it will kill us.”
At a second site, an angry crowd gathered, shouting at health workers dressed in white protective suits who sought to appease them by handing out Ebola information flyers.
“You will have to kill us first,” shouted one group.
Soldiers from the Liberian army with shields and bulletproof vests arrived on the scene shortly afterwards. A source in the health ministry said the bodies were finally buried overnight with the help of around 40 additional workers.
The government says that high levels of mistrust and resistance from local communities justifies a series of strict new measures designed to control the outbreak.
Liberia plans to close schools and consider quarantining some communities as part of an action plan outlined this week by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
In a crisis meeting on Sunday attended by the president, officials decided that the names of those in contact with suspected Ebola cases would be shared with airport and security authorities to restrict their movements.
Brown added that the government had decided to enforce mandatory cremations to limit contact with the dead and to avoid contamination of water sources.
“The Johnsonville burial did not go that well,” said Brown. “From now on, victims will be cremated.”
Additional reporting and writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Tom Heneghan