Two patients being treated for Ebola in the Congo fled a Doctors Without Borders aid center, igniting fears that dozens more may have contracted the disease.
Senior officials said on Thursday that the two people being treated were removed from the isolation ward of the facility in the city of Mbandaka by their families via motorcycles Monday, and were brought to a church with about 50 other people. Both patients died within a few hours outside of the hospital.
"The patients were in the active phase of the disease, vomiting," a doctor who was on site in Congo, Jean-Clement Cabro, said from Geneva, the Washington Post reported.
The setback in Ebola containment efforts is one example of how the local skeptical and uninformed people are frightened into reverting to religious customs, Reuters noted.
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"It is unfortunate but not unexpected," World Health Organization spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic, told the news service. "It is normal for people to want the loved ones to be at home during what could be the last moments of life."
A third patient who left before being discharged on Sunday night is still alive, according to the doctors.
"In all three cases, every effort was made by staff at the hospital to convince the patients — and their families — not to leave and to continue their treatment," Doctors Without Borders press officer Brienne Prusak said in a statement.
Representatives of the mission in Mbandaka stressed that the hospital is a treatment facility — not a prison — and patients cannot be forced against their will to stay. But the WHO and MSF — Medecins Sans Frontieres, another name associated with DWB — said that health workers must try to find the people who may have come into contact with the patients who fled and their contacts as well.
In what's known as "rings" of people, the officials said that they work outward from potentially infected individuals and then identify everyone they know who may also need to be vaccinated before more are infected.
So far, a list of 628 people as been amassed, the WHO said.
As of Tuesday, there have been 58 confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola in Mbandaka, a city of over 1 million people, and 27 deaths. The WHO updates these figures as lab information from the outbreak becomes available.
Ebola is contagious through direct contact of the blood and other bodily fluids of an infected person - living or dead. This creates a difficult and tense situation for the Congolese — who practice washing their dead — and the aid workers who try to gain their trust and instruct them otherwise.
Infected people are typically isolated from their families and then only interact with hazmat suit-clad doctors — an anxiety-inducing environment that people tend to avoid and, in effect, are left untreated.
A "forced hospitalization" edict, experts said, would only worsen these relationships and heighten fears.
"Patient adherence is paramount," Prusak said. "The quicker patients are admitted, the greater their chance of survival and the greater the chance of limiting the spread of Ebola."