Sierra Leone has been declared officially Ebola free

42 days have passed with no new cases reported in the West Africa country where nearly 4,000 people died of the virus


Sierra Leone has been declared free of Ebola by the World Health Organisation, prompting nationwide celebrations tinged with sadness over the 4,000 lives the virus claimed. Freetown was transformed into a giant carnival on Friday night as ecstatic crowds took to the streets of the capital in an outpouring of emotion.

Relief that the 17-month outbreak was all but over was reflected in candlelit prayers and spontaneous parties.

In a moving ceremony in Freetown on Saturday morning, the WHO’s country director, Anders Nordström, confirmed that 42 days had passed without any new cases, thereby satisfying criteria that the virus was no longer being transmitted. A speech by Yusuf Kamara, a healthcare worker who lost 16 members of his family and survived the disease himself, brought tears and a standing ovation. “For us, Ebola is not over. We need your help to treat the many, many health problems we still suffer from. And remember those who died at the hands of Ebola, and especially the children who have been affected by this outbreak,” he said.

Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma, has ended the state of emergency declared during the outbreak, but the country will now enter a 90-day period of heightened surveillance to make sure the virus does not return. The National Ebola Response Centre (NERC) will continue to operate until the end of the year, and the swabbing of all dead bodies for Ebola will be mandatory until June 2016.

Koroma said he was “humbled by the dedication” of 35,000 Ebola response workers “whose heroism is without parallel in the history of our country”. He praised their bravery and said the country mourned their sacrifice, adding: “The disease challenged the very foundations of our humanity.” He called on the community to halt the stigmatisation of survivors and said the focus was now on improved hygiene, healthcare and economic recovery.

Liberia was declared free of Ebola on 3 September, but the region as a whole must wait until Guinea is clear of new infections for 42 days before the epidemic can be declared over. “Since Sierra Leone recorded the first Ebola case in May 2014, a total number of 8,704 people were infected and 3,589 have died, 221 of them healthcare workers, all of whom we remember on this day,” Nordström said.

The atmosphere in Freetown overnight was jubilant, but there was also nervousness about the continuing outbreak in neighbouring Guinea, where four new cases have been recorded in the past fortnight. All four are children of a mother who contracted the disease from a relative and died.

“There are mixed emotions,” said Marto Lado, the infectious diseases consultant at the Connaught hospital in Freetown. “Everyone is celebrating, but the truth is I’m surprised at the normality of everything. On Friday people came to work and were talking about it, but not in an excited way. It’s more of a relief, people thinking: ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe we have got here.’ It has taken so long for this weekend to arrive. There is still a lot of anxiety about what might happen. There is still Ebola in Guinea and we know it is not over yet.”

Many of the health workers who died were infected because of inadequate protective equipment and training. “They died so we could live,” Fatmata, a university student, said with tears in her eyes.

Ebola survivors and the bereaved, who include an estimated 12,000 orphans, were subdued. The country’s first confirmed Ebola survivor, Victoria Yillia, told the crowd she was “happy that this disease which almost killed me has finally ended”. She appealed to authorities not to forget survivors, many of whom have faced social stigma and persistent health problems.

Dauda Fullah, 25, an Ebola survivor who lost five members of his family, said there would be street carnivals all day in the city of Kenema. “We are happy that this day has come, but we are not rejoicing, because we have felt the destruction to our lives,” he said. “The only thing I am doing is taking my family and saying a prayer for my parents and brothers and sisters who died.”

Mohamed Kamara, 23, who lost three members of his family and whose 19-year-old wife Aminata lost six of hers, said: “I feel really happy about today. I’m sad for the family that I lost, but I am happy for the end of Ebola. I pray that we don’t ever have this sickness in our country again.”

Syerramia Willoughby, the daughter of Victory Willoughby, the country’s most senior doctor to have been killed by Ebola, said: “The sadness stays with you for a long time. It’s really good to see Ebola has retreated, but my concern is that we will have more cases because it is not yet eliminated in Guinea.”

Saturday’s announcement marks the official end of a battle that was prematurely thought to have been nearing its conclusion on previous occasions. Ebola spread to Sierra Leone in May 2014, when two women were diagnosed as the country’s first cases. Both had attended the funeral of a widely respected faith healer who had been attending to patients in a village a few hours’ walk from Gueckedou in Guinea, where the outbreak began.

At the peak of the outbreak in 2014, Sierra Leone was reporting hundreds of new cases a week. Curfews were put in place and market trading and public gatherings including football matches and public film showings were banned. People queued for treatment at hospitals too full to cope and corpses were left on the streets.

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Source: Guardian News

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