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Guinea Continues Probe Into Slayings of Ebola Health Workers

FILE - A billboard with a message about Ebola appears on a street in Conakry, Guinea, Oct. 26, 2014.

Guinea’s Ministry of Justice said its investigation into the September killings of Ebola awareness health workers and a journalist in a southeastern village is moving swiftly, with a trial expected by year's end.

The murders of the eight people in the village of Wome sent shock waves of concern through Guinea and the international community that the already-difficult fight against Ebola was going to be that much harder.

The team of health workers and a journalist were brutally attacked in Wome as they traveled through the southeast to raise awareness about the virus. The village is near Guéckédou, the Guinean border town where the worst known Ebola outbreak in history is believed to have originated last December.

Investigation into killings

Guinean authorities reacted swiftly to the killings, increasing security for health workers and ramping up efforts to spread awareness.

Justice Minister Cheick Sakho said authorities are also working swiftly on the legal case against those responsible for the murders.

Sakho said 81 people have been indicted so far, and 39 are in custody. Police have 40 more arrest warrants to execute.

Health care workers' protective gear can look frightening. Here, a worker prepares to care for Ebola patients at the Doctors Without Borders treatment unit at Donka hospital in Conakry, Guinea.
Health care workers' protective gear can look frightening. Here, a worker prepares to care for Ebola patients at the Doctors Without Borders treatment unit at Donka hospital in Conakry, Guinea.

He said 20 witnesses have come forward and more than a dozen statements have been taken from complainants.

In Wome, there is now fear of legal prosecution.

A group of politicians and human right activists calling themselves members of the WOME crisis committee said thousands of residents have fled the village to hide in the nearby forests. The local committee said more than a dozen people have died of snake bites or lack of proper care while in hiding.

Crisis committee members said they went on a hunger strike to demand the government's withdrawal of soldiers, accusing them of vandalism. Military personnel were sent to Wome after the September killings.

Sakho said the investigation is being handled in a professional, lawful manner. He also said he expected the suspects would face trial by the end of the year.

Victims' families each have received $10,000 in compensation from the government.

A deadly fear

Fear and suspicion of health workers, ignorance about the virus and denial of its existence have been early hallmarks of West Africa's first Ebola outbreak.

A new study suggests that community distrust of outside health workers has helped feed it.

Timothy Roberton, MPH, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. state of Maryland, went to Guinea earlier this year to meet with local Red Cross workers and learn about their experiences in responding to Ebola.

Much of the focus has been on treating those who are sick, Roberton noted.

"And what is getting overlooked is this idea of prevention. You know, how we can educate families in these communities to stop the spread of the disease, so they don’t even get Ebola in the first place," he said in a telephone interview.

In interviews and focus groups in Guinea, Roberton and his colleagues explored challenges including overcoming traditional burial practices and local resident's suspicions. Health workers' success often depended on their winning local residents’ trust.

Some communities were more open to advice from medical experts, perhaps because health workers there already had an established relationship with locals.

Health workers faced a credibility gap, Roberton said, in villages that "have a history of perhaps being forgotten about or neglected by the government, people from different ethnic or language groups, people [whose] politicians have let them down in the past."

Successfully battling a public health menace requires better, more trusting relationships between health workers and community members, Roberton said.

Ideally, trust should be established before a crisis develops, he said. But the Guinean teams' experiences suggest possible shortcuts, "like involving all the political actors from the start, involving religious leaders, involving community elders – people who carry weight in the community."

Roberton presented his findings at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. His study was funded by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Struggles with epidemic

Meanwhile, Guinea – along with Sierra Leone and Liberia – still struggles to stem the epidemic. There have been more than 14,400 suspected cases and close to 5,200 deaths, the World Health Organization reported.

Guinean and U.N. officials last week completed training 1,000 people on how to trace individuals who may have come in contact with sick people to stem contamination.

Ebola is spread through close contact with an infected person’s body fluids.

Guinea also has intensified its youth campaign, deploying about 15,000 trained young people to go door to door to help educate citizens on how to stop and prevent the spread of Ebola.

Art Chimes contributed to this report.