THIS week marks one year after the declaration of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Little did we know then that it would quickly become the largest outbreak of the virus in history. More than 10,000 people have died and 24,000 people have been infected. Case numbers in affected countries have fallen since the peak of the crisis, but the battle is far from won.
Hopes were high here in Liberia last week, when there had been no new cases of Ebola for three weeks. Sadly, a new case was confirmed last Friday. The World Health Organization (WHO) requires 42 days - twice the maximum incubation period for Ebola - from the last known case before a country can be declared free of the virus.
Of all the countries affected by this devastating outbreak, Liberia has recorded the highest number of deaths from the disease. More than 4,300 people have died of Ebola in Liberia alone, according to the WHO. At the height of the crisis, there were more than 440 new cases each week in Liberia. Hospitals were so overburdened and beds were in such high demand that sick patients had to be turned away, despite the highly infectious nature of the disease they carried.
I can see the toll it has taken on my colleagues. They are extremely tired after months of working without a break. Many of them have lost loved ones. They have all been deeply affected by this terrible disease. They have some very sad stories which they will carry for the rest of their lives. Despite this, they still come to work and they continue to fight Ebola. The bravery and determination of the Liberians in combatting this crisis is inspirational.
The sheer scale of the outbreak caught everyone off guard and at the start no one knew how to handle it. The emergency response was slow to take off but I feel that the international community has learned a lot from this crisis, particularly about what was effective. We know that people need clear, accurate information in their own language, delivered by people who they trust and believe in. People can act on the advice they are given if basic resources are provided; for example, food and water supplies for quarantined families. People need to know how Ebola is transmitted, how it is not transmitted and how they can protect themselves.
Education is essential to halt the spread of Ebola.
Concern Worldwide have been working tirelessly with communities, families, local leaders and government ministries to teach people to protect themselves and their loved ones.
In neighbouring Sierra Leone, as part of the Government’s effort to put a stop to new case transmissions, citizens are taking part in a three-day ‘stay at home’ period this weekend. This is to enable trained teams to carry out house-to-house searches to identify sick people in need of support and families requiring quarantine and continue passing messages to the wider public about how to protect themselves and their families against Ebola.
Ebola, much like HIV, is a ‘travelling disease’; movement facilitates transmission. The borders between Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are porous, so people travelling to and from neighbouring countries can quite easily start new chains of transmission. No country in the region can afford to relax while neighbouring countries still have active cases of Ebola. A recent spike in case numbers in Guinea highlights the risk of complacency.
The presidents of all three most affected countries previously aimed to reach zero cases by mid-April, and the United Nations has indicated a new target of August 2015. With the end in sight, it is really tempting to relax a bit. It is remarkably difficult to have no physical contact with anyone for months on end for fear of contracting Ebola – especially for my friendly Liberian colleagues who would normally greet you with a handshake. But at this crucial time, maintaining the protocols is crucial.
Once we reach the ‘magic zero’ and the battle against Ebola is won, it is unlikely life will return to normal here for a long time. Concern, along with other agencies and government ministries, needs to focus now on the long-term recovery work required in a post-Ebola region. Health infrastructure, decimated by the crisis, will need significant support. Getting children back to full-time education is a priority, as is ensuring people have access to clean water and sanitation. Concern has been working in Liberia and Sierra Leone since 1996 and we will continue to work alongside the poorest people in both countries to get them back on the right track to long-term development.
In the meantime, the handwashing station at the entrance to the Concern office here in Monrovia is still stocked with water and chlorine. I wash my hands every time I come or go from the office and I have my temperature taken at least five times a day. My colleagues and I barely notice this anymore: we’re focused on getting to zero.
Ebola still poses a threat and we must not let our guard down.