Deadliest Ebola Outbreak Ever Is Over, Declares WHO, But Life Is Still Uncertain For Children Orphaned From The Virus

On Thursday, January 14, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the deadliest Ebola outbreak ever recorded is finally over. Although officials cautioned that more Ebola flare-ups were still likely, the three hardest-hit countries — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — have been free from new cases of the disease for the last 42 days, or two full Ebola incubation cycles.

According to the New York Times, the WHO made the announcement that the West African Ebola outbreak was finally over, from Geneva, Switzerland, after the final cases in Liberia were cured. This “monumental achievement,” says Margaret Chan, the director-general of the WHO, marks the first time since the Ebola outbreak started two years ago, that the three countries were all Ebola-free. Indeed, this is a “monumental achievement,” given that in the two years since the outbreak began, the disease has killed more than 11,300 people, and infected more than 28,500.

Chan and her colleague, Rick Brennan, the director of emergency risk management and humanitarian action at WHO, however, caution that vigilance and security is still an important factor in assuring that another Ebola outbreak doesn’t happen, reports Science Magazine.

“Today is a good day. While this is an important milestone and an important step forward, we have to say that the job is still not done. That’s because there is still ongoing risk of reemergence of the disease because of persistence of the virus in a proportion of survivors.”

The biggest threat for a new Ebola outbreak at the moment is that the virus can remain in certain bodily fluids — particularly the semen of male survivors — up to a year after they are disease and symptom-free. Ten such flare-ups have been reported across the three countries in the last nine months: four in Liberia, three in Guinea, and three in Sierra Leone. Although Brennan says they are “anticipating more,” the risk of triggering a new outbreak from these flare-ups is low. The recurrences happened roughly 27 days apart but no instances have been seen since mid-November. Brennan points out that as time goes on, the risk resurgence continues to lessen due mostly to the fact that survivors’ immune systems continue to flush out the Ebola virus.

Now, with all three countries officially declared Ebola free — Sierra Leone was declared free of the virus in November and Guinea in at the end of December — the next step in ensuring no further outbreaks happen is to continue surveillance in the once-infected areas, rather than walk away and pretend it’s all over, said Tolbert Nyenswah, the deputy minister of public health for Liberia, via telephone interview with the New York Times.

“Today is a monumental day of achievement — the end of human-to-human transmission of the Ebola virus in the region and Liberia. It is a collective effort for the international community and the people of Liberia for being once more Ebola-free. It does not mean that we have put our tools down and lay down our guys. We keep moving on with our surveillance system.”

Although the Ebola outbreak has been officially declared over, it’s important to remember that the toll the virus has taken on the population of these countries is not. According to Unicef, roughly 23,000 children in the three affected countries lost their parents or caregivers to the Ebola virus, while another 1,260 children, who were lucky enough to survive being infected with Ebola, will likely endure a lifetime of problems, both medical and personal. One of the biggest struggles these children face is being accepted back into their own communities after having been sick, or, in the cases of those orphaned from the Ebola virus, getting far enough away from the stigma of the disease in order to be adopted, says Roeland Monasch, head of the Sierra Leone office of Unicef.

“If there’s an earthquake or a war, and you lose a mother or a father, an aunt will take care of you. But this is different. These children aren’t being taken in by extended family. This isn’t like the AIDS orphans.”

It is wonderful news that the WHO has finally declared the world’s deadliest Ebola outbreak over, but while we’re rejoicing, it’s important to remember that there are those, like the Ebola orphans, whose struggles are just beginning.

[Photo by John Moore/Getty Images]