Nov. 7, 2015 | The Guardian
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.