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Africa

Liberians hope to get on with their lives, says health minister, after country declared Ebola-free

media Healthcare workers wearing protective suits at Elwa hospital in Monrovia, … AFP Photo/Dominique Faget

Liberia was declared free of the Ebola on Thursday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said, 42 days since the last confirmed case passed a second negative test for the virus. The country’s health minister has told RFI that the authorities will remain vigilant throughout a 90-day period of heightened surveillance.

“We’re happy that we’re free and we’ll be able to move our lives forward,” says health minister Bernice Dahn. “It’ll also help to bring our economy back because it affected almost every sector.”

More than 4,800 people died from Ebola in Liberia and despite being declared Ebola-free, there is still a way to go. Transmission of the virus in Liberia had previously been declared over in May. However, an additional six cases were identified at the end of June.

“Liberia has reached the point where they’ve gone through two cycles of the incubation period of the Ebola virus with no cases,” says WHO communications officer Margaret Harris. “So we’re confident that they’ve halted the transmission. But as we’ve seen before with Liberia, you can get a re-emergence.”

Health minister Dahn says a number of measures against Ebola will continue during the heightened 90-day surveillance period. These include swabbing and testing every dead body for the virus, investigating all suspected cases, border monitoring, airport screening, laboratory testing, vaccine trials and survivor studies.

“We continue with the health education, with community involvement,” says Dahn. She says the Liberian government hopes to set up a public health institute for infectious diseases in the future, modelled on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition to the previous re-emergence of virus in Liberia, Sierra Leone saw a similar phenomenon recently after the last remaining Ebola patient was released from hospital in the city of Makeni at the end of August.

Celebrations were premature as the death of a woman who tested positive for Ebola resulted in the quarantining of 50 people. Earlier this week, officials in Sierra Leone said this could have sparked a new chain of transmission.

“Once it’s gone, the tendency, and it’s a very human tendency - this happens all over the world - is the desire to return to normal,” says WHO spokeswoman Harris. “In Sierra Leone we have seen a case in an area that hadn’t seen a case for several months. But again because there was heightened surveillance in that area that case was picked up.”

“You often get a re-emergence, a small cluster and the important thing is to identify it early and jump on it,” says Harris.

Liberia has witnessed more than 10,600 cases of Ebola, according to statistics compiled by the WHO. There were almost 4,000 deaths from more than 13,600 cases in Sierra Leone. And in Guinea more than 2,500 people died from almost 3,800 confirmed cases of the virus.

“I’m very happy. We need to move our lives forward,” says the Liberian health minister. “It’s about time Ebola becomes one of the diseases that we normally keep active surveillance on,” says Dahn, who in September last year put herself in quarantine as a precaution after one of her assistants died from the virus.

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