Saturday marks 42 days since Liberia’s last Ebola case — the benchmark used to declare the outbreak over because it represents two incubation periods of 21 days for new cases to emerge. The World Health Organization on Saturday called the milestone a “monumental achievement for a country that reported the highest number of deaths in the largest, longest, and most complex outbreak since Ebola first emerged in 1976.”
Just before the statement, Luke Bawo, an epidemiologist, showed a map depicting all of Liberia in green with the number 42 superimposed on it. This represented that two maximum incubation periods of the virus, a total of 42 days, had passed since the safe burial of the last person confirmed to have had Ebola in the country, fulfilling the official criteria for concluding that human-to-human transmission of the virus has ended.
The statistics of loss, though, are enormous in Liberia: 189 health workers dead. Some 3,290 children lost one or both parents to the disease, though most have been placed with other relatives or in foster care.
While praising the international community’s help in getting Liberia to zero cases, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Saturday criticized the slow initial response to the epidemic in West Africa that cost many lives.
“This Ebola outbreak is a scar on the conscience of the world. For some the pain and grief will take a generation to heal,” she said. “Therefore, let today’s announcement be a call to arms that we will build a better world for those Ebola could not reach … It is the least the memories of our dearly departed deserve.”
Elsewhere in West Africa, new cases were still being reported this week in both Sierra Leone and in Guinea, where five of the new victims were only diagnosed after death. The fact they had never even sought treatment for Ebola means health officials lost critical time to track their relatives and other contacts.
“It’s important to remember the next case is only a canoe ride away across the river or across a forest path, so we still have an element of risk here and we all need to be very conscious of that,” said Sheldon Yett, UNICEF’s Representative in Liberia, who emphasized that the recovery needs also remain enormous.
In the past week, Guinea and Sierra Leone each reported nine cases of the disease, the lowest weekly total this year. Dr. Bruce Aylward, head of the W.H.O.’s Ebola response efforts, cautioned that hidden chains of transmission were probably occurring in those two countries. “We don’t know where that virus is,” he said. Dr. Aylward said it had taken Liberia several months to get to zero cases after reaching single digits.