Reporting On Ebola: An Abandoned 10-Year-Old, A Nervous Neighborhood

Originally published on July 22, 2015 3:31 pm

Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, is under nighttime curfew as that country struggles to contain the Ebola epidemic. On Wednesday, an entire neighborhood in Monrovia was quarantined, sealed off from the rest of the city by the government. The neighborhood is called West Point and it's where a holding center for patients suspected of having Ebola was attacked over the weekend. Patients fled, and looters carried off bloody mattresses and other possibly infected supplies. The NPR team in Liberia visited West Point on Tuesday. We spoke to correspondent Nurith Aizenman about the experience.

What is West Point like?

It is a sort of finger of land, a little sandy peninsula that juts out from a nicer area of Monrovia, abutting a river on one side and the ocean on the other. It's about 800 meters long and 550 meters wide. There are only two roads in that are paved. The rest is a thicket of shacks and houses and huts, pretty much all one story and built of plywood or cement blocks, with corrugated metal on the rooftops. Between them are sandy pathways. It's so closely packed that in some cases if you're trying to get to your house you have to walk through someone else's house.

Both sides of the paved roads are packed with shops selling all manners of goods, vegetables, fish. There are throngs of people, carrying big buckets on their heads with all sorts of goods. If you drive in, you gently nudge your way forward, parting this sea of people.

And that's where NPR's photographer David Gilkey encountered the 10-year-old in the picture above?

Residents had originally found this boy naked on the beach. They dragged him up to a sort of alleyway and put a shirt and pants on him. But beyond that no one wanted to touch him, no one wanted to give him shelter, because it seems he was a child who had been at that holding center for Ebola patients.

Where is the boy now?

A woman went to a nearby health clinic to see if they would take the boy in, but she said the clinic refused because he may have Ebola. The boy was looking very ill at this point. But we heard from someone in West Point that the boy has now been taken to JFK hospital, where the government, with the assistance of the World Health Organization, has just opened the fourth treatment center for Ebola. And although I haven't confirmed it, we heard accounts that the boy seemed to have revived a little bit.

What do people in West Point think about the raid on the center?

We talked to several people who were upset that there was no effort to alert the community as to what this center was about, and they were also upset that the center had accepted people from other neighborhoods.

Some people said they want the center to reopen as long as they would be assured that no one from outside the community would be brought there and that they would be included in communications about the center.

You mentioned yesterday that some Liberians are skeptical about Ebola — they think it's something the government made up to get more foreign aid. What do they think in West Point?

We've heard reports that at the raid, people were shouting "Ebola doesn't exist." But if you think the disease doesn't exist, why would you be mad that people from other neighborhoods with this supposed nonexistent disease would have been brought in? The bottom line is that there is a lot of fear and confusion.

Is this a tough story to report?

It's difficult. Normally you would not be afraid of children. But now you have to be wary of children because a child will come and tug on your sleeve. That's not threatening in other places, but here things are different. I keep my hands in my pockets at all times.

Update on Friday, Aug. 22, 11:50 a.m.

Getty photographer John Moore, who also took pictures of the boy, spoke to his aunt on Friday. She was checking into a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Monrovia with her five children — all of them, including her, suspected Ebola cases. The aunt said that Saah died Wednesday at JFK hospital.

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We are turning now to Liberia. This is one of the countries that has been overwhelmed by the Ebola outbreak. The country has been seeing the highest number of new cases of the virus, and it's had more deaths than any other country. Late last night, Liberia's President announced a 9 p.m. curfew in the capital, Monrovia, and also quarantined that city's West Point neighborhood. This comes after an attack there over the weekend that targeted a holding center for people showing symptoms of Ebola. We're turning for the latest now to NPR's Nurith Aizenman who's in Monrovia. Nurith, good morning.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: We want to be clear here, this neighborhood we're talking about, West Point, this is the neighborhood where we heard about--earlier this week on the program--an Ebola holding center where patients were literally being dragged out by people in this raid, right?

AIZENMAN: Yes, and that is exactly the reason that officials are telling me that they have imposed the quarantine on this neighborhood. Now how it's going to play out right now is unclear. This was announced late last night. I talked to Liberia's information minister this morning and he told me that the quarantine is already completely in place, that security forces are mobilized, absolutely no one will be allowed in or out. And he said that they're going to keep it up for at least 21 days. Now I talked to several people who live in West Point this morning as well, and some of them said people were allowed to leave, mostly those who go into other parts of the city every morning to sell things on the street. But as of right now, security forces have moved in. And the route into West Point is sealed off. And in fact it appears that they're even preventing people from entering the parts of the neighboring commercial center of Monrovia. So there's still a lot of confusion about how this is going to work in practice.

GREENE: I'm thinking that 21 days is probably because that's the period of time when you have to wait to see if Ebola symptoms develop. And we're talking about a neighborhood here with tens of thousands of people, as you said, and cordoning it off, and sealing it off, for three weeks, this sounds nearly impossible.

AIZENMAN: Yeah, and it's helpful to understand that West Point is separate from the rest of the city. I went to West Point yesterday, and it's incredibly dense. It's just a thicket of one-story homes built with plywood or cement block with corrugated, metal roofs, and they're packed so tightly together that in order to get in to some of the houses you have to walk through another house. They're literally isn't even enough room for a pathway between the houses. And there are only two roads in and two roads out. So it is conceivable that the police could block those off. That said it is surrounded by water, on one side, the Atlantic Ocean. Fishing is a major source of income so people go out by boat all the time. And while the government is telling me they're not worried about how they would prevent that from happening, it remains to be seen how feasible that's going to be.

GREENE: Well, Nurith, as we said, this is the neighborhood where this Ebola center was that was raided, you know, patients were taken out of this place. Does anyone know where these patients have gone since then?

AIZENMAN: Well, there were 17 of them there at the time the center was raided. Officials tell me that after several days of searching they have now located all of them. And they've been taken to a new Ebola care center that opened this week in a hospital in the capital.

GREENE: Presumably a place that would offer better care than this center was offering. It sounded like a, you know, a pretty rough place.

AIZENMAN: Yeah. No care was offered at the West Point center. It was just a holding facility to isolate people, really. In fact, there were some people who left that holding facility even before it was attacked. And I'm working with NPR photographer David Gilkey out here. Yesterday he was in West Point as well and he came across a boy, a young child who was one of those who had left the center before the attack. He found this boy lying naked on the beach. Some residents pulled him into an alley and dressed him, but no one wanted to take him in and touch him further.

GREENE: Yeah. I was looking at that photo on our website before we spoke. I mean, this is a young boy just lying in the sand looking really, I mean - it's awful - looking anguished.

AIZENMAN: Yeah. It's a very disturbing picture. And it really crystallizes the desperation here. We did hear later in the day that this boy was also taken to that same care center at the city hospital.

GREENE: This is the new center. And hopefully he'll get care there. And we'll hope for the best for him. We've been talking to NPR's global health and development correspondent Nurith Aizenman, speaking to us from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. Nurith, thank you.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.