MONROVIA (AFP) - Liberian officials were searching on Monday for 17 Ebola patients who fled an attack on a quarantine centre in the capital Monrovia, raising fears that they could spread the deadly and highly contagious disease.
"We have not yet found them," Information Minister Lewis Brown said, adding that "those who looted the place took away mattresses and bedding that were soaked with fluids from the patients".
On Saturday, youths wielding clubs and knives raided the medical facility set up in a high school in the dense-populated West Point slum, some shouting "there's no Ebola", echoing wild rumours that the epidemic has been made up by the West to oppress Africans.
The authorities are now considering sealing off the area, home to around 75,000 people, although some reports suggest the infected patients may have already fled West Point.
"All those hooligans who looted the centre are all now probable carriers of the disease," said Mr Brown, the spokesman for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. "To quarantine the area could be one of the solutions."
"We run the risk of facing a difficult-to-control situation," he warned.
Ebola has killed at least 1,145 people in west Africa since the start of the year. There is no known cure for the haemorrhagic fever, which can be spread through bodily fluids including blood and sweat.
The head of the Health Workers Association of Liberia George Williams said the unit had 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 (after the assault)," Mr Williams said on Sunday. "Nine died four days ago and three others were yesterday taken by force by their relatives" from the centre, he said.
Mr Fallah Boima's son Michel was among the patients who fled the centre. "I am afraid that he could die somewhere, and I will not know," he told AFP.
Mr Wilmont Johnson, head of a youth association in West Point, told journalists on Monday that he had organised a search for the missing patients.
"We searched everywhere but we did not see them. Those who saw them passing told us that they have gone into other communities," Mr Johnson said, suggesting that quarantining efforts might come too late.
The Ebola epidemic is the worst since the virus first appeared in 1976 in what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has claimed 413 lives in Liberia, 380 in Guinea, 348 in Sierra Leone and four in Nigeria, according to World Health Organisation figures released on Aug 13.