FREETOWN (Reuters) - Thousands marched on an Ebola treatment center in Sierra Leone on Friday after a former nurse alleged that the deadly virus was invented to conceal "cannibalistic rituals" at the ward, a regional police chief said.
Across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, at least 660 people have died from the illness, according to the World Health Organization, placing great strain on the health systems of some of Africa's poorest countries.
Sierra Leone now has the highest number of cases, at 454, surpassing neighboring Guinea where the outbreak originated in February.
Angry crowds gathered outside the country's main Ebola hospital in Kenema in the West African country's remote east where dozens are receiving treatment for the virus and threatened to burn it down and remove the patients.
Residents said that police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds and said that a nine-year-old boy was shot in the leg by a police bullet.
Assistant Inspector General Alfred Karrow-Kamara said on Saturday that the protest was sparked off by a former nurse who had told a crowd at a nearby fish market that "Ebola was unreal and a gimmick aimed at carrying out cannibalistic rituals".
He said that calm had now been restored to Kenema on Saturday, adding that a strong armed police presence was in place around the clinic and the local police station.
Some health workers from the clinic have been reported absent from work because of "misconceptions by some members of the community," according to a local doctor.
Ebola can kill up to 90 percent of those who catch it, although the fatality rate of the current outbreak is around 60 percent. Highly contagious, its symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea as well as internal and external bleeding.
President Ernest Bai Koroma said on Saturday that the government planned to "intensify activities and interventions in containing the disease and stopping it spread" with a view to ending the disease within 60-90 days.
The new strategy will focus on contact tracing, surveillance, communications and social mobilization, psychosocial services, logistics and supplies, according to the president's statement.
The WHO has previously said that poor health infrastructure and a lack of manpower were hindering efforts to contain the outbreak in Sierra Leone. Another problem is fear and mistrust of health workers among the local population, many of whom have more faith in traditional medicine.
Sierra Leone officials appealed for help on Friday to trace the first known resident in the capital with Ebola whose family forcibly removed her from a Freetown hospital after she tested positive for the deadly disease.
Amadu Sisi, senior doctor at King Harman hospital, where the patient originally escaped from, said on Saturday that she had been turned in after seeking refuge in the house of a traditional healer.
"Because of media and police pressure they decided to give her up. Maybe they are now convinced it is Ebola," he said.