Two years after the worst outbreak of Ebola in history, the epidemic that claimed the lives of more than 11,000 people in West Africa has been declared to be over by the World Health Organization (WHO). This marks the first time since the outbreak started that the three main countries to be wracked by the disease have simultaneously had zero reported cases for the required period of time. While this is clearly good news, the WHO has warned that this is unlikely to be the end of Ebola, as more flare-ups are expected.
The announcement has come after Liberia, the last country to have a reported case of Ebola, recently made it through the required 42 days without another diagnosis. This period of time is twice that of the disease's incubation period, the time between contracting the infection and showing symptoms. This is the third time the country has managed this, but subsequent infections occurred in the following weeks. Today, however, marks the first time that Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have all been free of the disease at the same time, and any new cases are now not considered to be part of the original outbreak.
The disease is thought to have claimed at least 11,000 lives, with many left behind struggling to cope. USAID/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
“Detecting and breaking every chain of transmission has been a monumental achievement,” explains Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization. “So much was needed and so much was accomplished by national authorities, heroic health workers, civil society, local and international organizations and generous partners. But our work is not done and vigilance is necessary to prevent new outbreaks.”
It was in December 2013 when the disease started to slowly spread around a small village in Guinea, but it wasn’t until March the following year that it became much more prevalent and was finally identified as Ebola. In the following two years, the outbreak became the largest Ebola epidemic ever seen, as it was officially recorded in 10 countries globally. At the peak of the epidemic, the capital cities of the three main countries were completely overwhelmed, as hospitals were unable to cope with the sudden influx of cases and bodies were piling up in the streets.
While it’s estimated that almost 30,000 people were infected with the disease, and over 11,000 died, the actual figure is thought to have been much higher as many cases in the remote village of West Africa almost certainly went unreported. As a result of such huge mortality rates, it’s thought that up to 12,000 orphans lost their primary caregivers, while over 3,000 children lost both parents.
With the virus able to survive in the semen of some men for up to a year after infection, it will be a long time before any of the nations can rest easy again. The WHO is now working with the governments of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to make sure that strong surveillance and response systems are in place so that when flare-ups do occur, they are able to stop them before they get out of control again, while also providing medical access and psychological care to survivors.