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Newest Liberian Ebola treatment centre overwhelmed with cases

A doctor attends to a girl on Friday at a Médecins sans frontières hospital in Monrovia, where patients and doctors are terrified.

PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images

Clutching a tattered plastic bag of spare clothing, 12-year-old runaway Princess Sheriff trudges back through the heavy steel gates of the Ebola treatment unit. A man in a biohazard suit sprays her bag with disinfectant, then turns the nozzle onto the car that brought her.

The girl, thin and weak, had escaped from the unit on Tuesday, walking for two hours through the city streets to her home after somehow persuading the guards that she had recovered. But she was still sick, and two days later her father took her back.

"I've been worrying about her for four days," said her father, Mohammed Sheriff, an auto mechanic. "I can't eat."

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Princess is one of 72 children in Liberia's newest Ebola treatment centre. Less than a week after opening, the 150-bed unit is already overwhelmed with 206 patients, and more are arriving each day. Some lie huddled on the dusty ground outside the gates until they are carried in, while a steady stream of ambulances, sirens blaring, bring more patients.

"We're trying to squeeze in as many as possible," said Atai Omoruto, the overworked Ugandan doctor in charge of the centre. "We're still getting so many patients, every day. We're using the corridors. Whatever space is available, we're putting camp beds there."

As she spoke, trucks arrived with piles of donated mattresses from a local microfinance organization and a load of wooden bed frames from a Liberian carpenters' union. But the new treatment unit, on Bushrod Island near the city's seaport, is making barely a dent in an ever-growing disaster that has already killed more than 3,000 people in five West African countries. Monrovia has roughly 500 treatment beds, but Liberia as a whole needs thousands and they have been slow to arrive.

When the Island treatment unit opened last Sunday, it immediately received more than 100 seriously ill patients who had been waiting in a holding centre in the city. Since then, nearly 50 of its patients have died. Others, like Princess Sheriff, have run away from the unit, despite its high walls and razor wire. Security guards may have left the gate unattended during heavy rains this week, allowing patients to slip away, Dr. Omoruto said.

"Many patients don't want to be here," she said in an interview. "It's scary to be here. It's scary to see so very many sick people, so many people dying. It's scary for my staff too."

While the United States has pledged to build 17 new Ebola treatment centres of 100 beds each, primarily in Liberia, it will take months for all of the centres to be completed. In the meantime, the number of Ebola cases in Liberia is soaring exponentially, doubling every 21 days.

Many other countries are not doing enough to help, Dr. Omoruto said. "It's like they are on another planet."

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The overcrowding of the new treatment unit is a sign that Liberians have stopped denying the Ebola epidemic and are beginning to seek help at an earlier stage in their illness, Liberian officials say.

"People are more aware of the clinical signs and they want help when they feel sick or weak," said Robert Kpoto, a prominent Liberian doctor and medical educator.

But this is little consolation to the families of the Ebola patients. They gather outside the gates, trying desperately to get information. Sianeh Howard wept as her 14-year-old nephew shouted through the gate, giving the latest news about her sick sister.

"She's not talking now, she's weak, she's stopped eating, and she has saliva coming from her mouth," Ms. Howard said. "I feel she is dying now."

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