The two-year Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people across west Africa and triggered a global health scare is to be declared over Thursday, with Liberia the last country expecting the all-clear.
The worst outbreak of the tropical virus in history has wrecked the economies and health systems of the three worst-hit nations since it emerged in southern Guinea in December 2013.
At its peak, it devastated Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with bodies piling up in the streets and overwhelmed hospitals recording hundreds of new cases a week.
The World Health Organization said Thursday’s announcement in Geneva would “mark 42 days since the last Ebola cases in Liberia were tested negative.”
Liberia, the country worst hit by the outbreak with 4,800 deaths, discharged its last two patients from hospital — the father and younger brother of a 15-year-old victim — on December 3, 2015.
“We will remain careful and keep calling on the population to take the necessary measures in preventing reoccurrence,” said Francis Karteh, Liberia’s chief medical officer, a key figure in the response to the epidemic.
Africa’s oldest republic was the last country still afflicted by the outbreak that infected almost 29,000 people and claimed 11,315 lives, according to official data.
The real toll is suspected to be much higher, with many Ebola deaths believed to have gone unreported.
After the last patient is declared in the clear, a 42-day countdown — twice the incubation period of the virus — begins before the country is proclaimed Ebola-free.
Ebola causes severe fever and muscle pain, weakness, vomiting and diarrhoea. In many cases it shuts down organs and causes unstoppable internal bleeding. Patients often succumb within days.
The virus is spread through close contact with the sweat, vomit, blood or other bodily fluids of an infected person, or the recently deceased.
From a Guinean infant who was the first victim the epidemic quickly spread into neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone, notching up more deaths than all other Ebola outbreaks combined.
– Economic ruin –
Liberia was first to be declared free of human-to-human Ebola transmission in May, only to see the virus resurface six weeks later. It was officially credited with beating the epidemic for a second time in September before another small cluster of cases emerged.
Mali, Senegal and Nigeria also recorded a small number of cases.
The World Health Organization (WHO) came under fire for its sluggish response to the epidemic, which local healthcare systems were woefully underequipped to handle. Over 500 healthcare workers died in three west African countries in the eye of the outbreak.
While Cuba sent doctors, Western governments offered little but sympathy until foreign aid workers started falling ill and returning home for treatment, sparking fears of a global pandemic.
The concerns inched higher when three cases of infections came to light outside Africa — two in the United States and one in Spain.
The US, Britain and other countries eventually rallied to the cause, sending thousands of troops and medics to Africa in 2014 and developing a number of promising potential vaccines and treatments.
But the economic ravages of the epidemic are still being felt.
The World Bank estimates the economic damage of the outbreak, which devastated the mining, agriculture and tourism industries in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, at $2.2 billion over 2014-15.
“Ebola has reduced me to a pauper,” said textile dealer Mohamed Sow, one of numerous entrepreneurs interviewed by AFP in Sierra Leone this week, describing how his creditors skipped town when the outbreak started.
On the health front, many painful lessons have been learned.
An overhaul of the WHO’s epidemic response guidelines means the deployment of medical staff, virus-blocking suits, medicines and other material is likely to be much faster next time.
“We know how to stop the spread,” Liberia’s Karteh told AFP. “Liberia is no longer at risk like the way it was.”