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by Sabine Balk

“Ebola free” does not mean Ebola is gone for good

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which was first noticed in March 2014, was the worst in global history since the virus was discovered. In October 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Guinea Ebola free, and in November, Sierra Leone as well. This label means that no new virus infection has been registered for 42 days; 42 days are two Ebola virus incubation cycles. In September 2015, the WHO had declared Liberia Ebola free – but for the second time this year. The country is not Ebola free, however, as three male Liberian persons were infected in November, and a 15 year old boy died on 23 November.

On YouTube you can find a very funny “Bye Bye Ebola” video, where Sierra Leoneans celebrate the end of the outbreak. Anyone with a stake in the matter, will appreciate the images of people, including masked medical staff or soldiers, celebrating and dancing. It is fun to watch the video and it makes you smile. But it may cause false hope, just like the WHO’s optimistic “Ebola free”-declarations, because it suggests that Ebola is gone now.

The question is whether Ebola can be eradicated or not. There are reasons for doubt. There still is no reliable drug or vaccine against the virus. The virus is awfully contagious and it still exists. Perhaps some infected persons have not been reported to – or found by – the authorities. The Liberian journalist Solomon Watkins did a very interesting analysis about Ebola’s impact and its potential on Africans.

The WHO realises the necessity to act and is cooperating with the pharmaceutical industry on developing an effective vaccine; and there are signs of success. We need not panic, but we must be aware that new outbreaks are possible and perhaps even likely. One lesson of the crisis is certainly that more efforts are needed to build full-fledged health systems for everyone, including the poor, in Africa. Such systems are not only needed when Ebola strikes, they help to rise to many other challenges as well.

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