Sierra Leone is about to officially beat Ebola

Let the countdown begin! Sierra Leone’s last patient with Ebola was discharged yesterday. The country will be declared “Ebola-free” next month, if she tests negative for 42 days and no new cases are discovered. Celebrations for the achievement are tempered by the fact that a month remains before Sierra Leone is in the clear.

“The Ebola fight is not yet over – go and tell members of your community that,” said President Ernest Bai Koroma as he presented survivor Adama Sankoh with a certificate, the Associated Press reported. “Go back to your community and continue to live life as you used to.”

Health workers danced as Sankoh, the country’s last known patient, made her way out of an International Medical Corps treatment facility on the outskirts of Makeni – Koroma’s hometown. People clapped and sang, one worker was videoed imitating Usain Bolt’s iconic victory pose, as Sankoh made here way out. Dressed in white, she, too, danced with the people gathered around her. The celebrating staff were joined by Koroma and others to mark what they hope is an end to the Ebola outbreak.

Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma presents Ebola survivor Adama Sankoh with a certificate. (IMC)

Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma presents Ebola survivor Adama Sankoh with a certificate. (Credit: IMC)

Ebola killed nearly 4,000 people in Sierra Leone over the span of 15 months. While Koroma is the last discharged Ebola case, there are still 28 people waiting in quarantine from Ebola exposure. No person in the group has yet to show symptoms, but they are still within the period where the virus has yet to manifest itself. And then there are the cases officials may not know about.

“We might have hidden cases, so we have to continue to be vigilant, continue our surveillance, maintain our discipline of hand-washing and temperature checks, screening and avoid over-crowding,” said OB Sisay, director of the situation room of National Ebola Response Centre, in an interview with the BBC.

He is also worried about the persistence of cases in neighboring Guinea. Last week three new cases were diagnosed in the country. While the rate of infections continues to slow in Guinea, the persistence of Ebola poses a threat to its citizens and Sierra Leone. Sankoh, for example, contracted Ebola from her 23-year-old son Moussa following his visit to the capital city of Freetown. She and her nephew Alhaji Sankoh fell ill at the start of August. Both recovered, but Moussa did not.

“Although my child died of Ebola I am very happy that I have survived today,” she said following her release.

Liberia achieved “Ebola-free” status in May. Both Sierra Leone and Guinea saw a reduction in cases, but struggled to stop it entirely. Just a month earlier, 630 people were in quarantine in Sierra Leone. The International Medical Corps said it was prepared for an influx of Ebola cases at the Makeni treatment center, the same place where Sankoh was treated.

“This incident is a stark reminder that even a single case of Ebola has the potential to cause a major setback in our efforts to bring this crisis under control in Sierra Leone. The fight against Ebola is still not won,” said Dr. Vanessa Wolfman, International Medical Corps’s medical director in Sierra Leone, at the time.

The same concern holds true today. With no reported cases of Ebola, Sierra Leone is on the brink of defeating the deadly virus. The next 42 days are not about waiting. Health officials and aid groups made clear that they will continue to undertake efforts to find any potential cases and ensure that people remain safe and healthy.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.