Ebola’s last stand: Epidemic in West Africa nearing conclusion

Medical staff working with Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) prepare to bring food to patients kept in an isolation area at the MSF Ebola treatment centre in Kailahun July 20, 2014 [Photo: Reuters]

Medical staff working with Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) prepare to bring food to patients kept in an isolation area at the MSF Ebola treatment centre in Kailahun. [Reuters]

Liberia and Sierra Leone, two of the countries worst affected by the Ebola outbreak, are now virus-free according to the World Health Organisation. EURACTIV’s partner El País – Planeta Futuro reports.

On 7 November, Sierra Leone had gone 42 days without any new cases of Ebola, allowing the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare the country free of the virus. It is an important milestone for the West African country, as the country has recorded 14,089 cases of the disease since December 2013, almost half of the total that were reported to have caused the outbreak (28,571).

The announcement that Sierra Leone is now virus-free, will, therefore, be met with a mixture of caution and celebration. However, the news is less positive in neighbouring Guinea, where the virus continues to infect people, with 382 people currently under strict quarantine. Yet, it appears that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that the epidemic is nearing its conclusion.

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The last 19 months have been tough on Sierra Leone, after the first signs of an outbreak were recorded in late March 2014 in the region of Kailahun. According to scientists that have studied the history of this particular epidemic, the first person to introduce the virus to Sierra Leone was a woman who went to a funeral in Guinea and was consequently infected.

The disease quickly spread from Kailahun to the neighbouring region of Kenema, circulating for two months and taking advantage of the denial of the population who did little to hinder it. By the beginning of summer, the virus had reached its peak and had spread throughout most of the country, including the capital, Freetown.

International aid

The Sierra Leonean authorities, overwhelmed by the situation, adopted controversial measures, like days of “reflection and prayer”, where the entire population were obligated to stay at home while health workers and volunteers went door to door taking temperatures. Entire regions were also quarantined, like Kailahun and Kenema.

As was the case in Guinea and Liberia, unsafe burials and the refusal of the local population to believe there was actually an epidemic were the main factors behind the spread of the disease and reinfection. The health system basically collapsed.

The European Union and its member states have so far contributed over €1.8 billion to the fight against Ebola in West Africa, as well as providing assistance through its Civil Protection Mechanism.

The tireless work of volunteers, coupled with international aid that provided treatment centres and increased public awareness, allowed the country to arrive at the point where it is now, where it has completed two incubation periods of 21 days without further infection. However, the government has announced that it will keep all the systems it has in place, in order to safeguard against a revival of the disease as a result of external factors or the virus’ ability to remain dormant in the body for a number of months.

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It is now time for the health system that struggled so much to cope with the outbreak to be reinforced and for confidence in it to be rebuilt. “We are still facing a health-crisis that eclipses even the Ebola outbreak,” said José Félix Hoyo, former head of the Doctors of the World treatment centre in Moyamba. “Just look at the dramatic reduction in health services in Sierra Leone, around 70% compared with pre-Ebola landscape, the fall in child immunisation numbers and the fact that only half the population seek medical help when faced with a problem,” he added.

After Sierra Leone followed in the footsteps of Liberia, which was declared virus-free on 3 September, the last pocket of resistance remains in Guinea. Although the infection rate has been stabilised at less than five cases a week for three months now, the virus is still there.

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