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WHO announces Ebola milestone as Guinea outbreak ends

The UN’s health agency on Tuesday declared Guinea’s Ebola outbreak over two years after it emerged, spreading death across west Africa and pushing the region’s worst-hit communities to the brink of collapse.

One of the poorest nations in the world, the former French colony was the host for “patient zero” — an infant who became the first victim — and health authorities went on to record some 2,500 deaths.

“The epidemic of Ebola virus disease in Guinea is over,” Mohamed Belhoucine, the World Health Organization’s local representative, announced in the capital Conakry.

The fever spread stealthily and terrifyingly from December 2013, striking two neighbouring countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia, with sporadic cases also in Mali, Nigeria and Senegal.

As world health watchdogs struggled to respond, deaths mounted at a dizzying rate, igniting fears in Europe and elsewhere of a virus that transgressed borders and national controls.

Around 11,300 people died out of almost 29,000 recorded cases, according to a WHO tally that many experts believe greatly understates the real impact of the outbreak.

Paying tribute to Guineans for “standing their ground and fighting with courage”, Belhoucine also acknowledged the international community’s help in battling the outbreak.

“At the peak of the epidemic… the country recorded hundreds of cases per week. The social fabric was severely tested,” he said.

The last known case in Guinea was a three-month-old named Nubia, who was born with the disease but whose recovery was confirmed on November 16.

That triggered the countdown to the announcement, as a period of 42 days — twice the virus’s maximum incubation period — is required to declare a country free of transmission.

– ‘Au revoir, Ebola’ –

The WHO declared Sierra Leone’ epidemic over on November 7, while Liberia discharged its last known Ebola cases on December 3.

President Alpha Conde is expected at an celebration in Conakry on Wednesday, flanked by representatives from donor countries and dozens of organisations involved in the recovery, from Doctors without Borders to the Red Cross.

Guests will pay tribute to the 115 health workers who died fighting Ebola and eight members of an Ebola awareness team killed by hostile locals in Guinea’s forested southeast.

A range of top African musicians, including Youssou N’Dour and Mory Kante, will take to the stage for a “memorial” concert — entitled “Bye-bye, au revoir Ebola” in the francophone country.

Amid the jubilation and hope for a return to normality, experts have sounded a note of caution, as the virus has been shown to persist in the sperm and other body fluids of survivors significantly longer than previously thought.

– Shattered economies –

Liberia was declared free of human-to-human transmission in May and again in September, but both times the fever resurfaced in small clusters.

“We have to be very careful because, even if open transmission has been stopped, the disease has not been totally defeated,” said Alpha Seny Souhmah, a Guinean health technician and Ebola survivor.

The WHO said in a statement from Geneva that Guinea had entered a 90-day period of “heightened surveillance” to ensure any new cases are identified quickly before they could spread.

Guineans battling Ebola have been faced with huge obstacles, not least the country’s grinding poverty and a crumbling medical infrastructure.

Frontline workers have also had to combat the rumour mill, entrenched denial, fear of Ebola stigma and resistance to confinement measures deemed authoritarian or unreasonable.

They also had to persuade people to abandon funeral traditions whereby mourners touch the body of their loved one — a potent pathway to infection.

The epidemic devastated the economies of the worst-hit countries, as crops rotted in the fields, mines were abandoned and goods could not get to market.

Strong recent growth has been curtailed in Guinea and while Liberia has resumed growth, Sierra Leone is facing a severe recession, according to the World Bank, which has mobilised $1.62 billion for Ebola response and recovery efforts.

The bank’s group president Jim Yong Kim called for continued support for Guinea and its neighbours, vowing to “do everything we can to help these countries and the world prevent another deadly pandemic”.


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