Sierra Leone’s tough journey to freedom from Ebola

At the announcement of the World Health Organization (WHO) that Sierra Leone is now Ebola free, 42 days after no case has been declared, the citizens of the country trooped en-masse into the streets to jubilate what, perhaps, seemed an unbelievable feat to citizens who have been dealing with the ebola crisis for over a year now.

Dr. Oliver Johnson, who worked at an Ebola clinic in Freetown, told the BBC, “[For] everyone I’ve spoken to, there’s a sense of relief that this might finally be over and maybe a bit of disbelief that after so many false starts, or false ends, we might finally be there”.

In the first public party since the Ebola epidemic hit Sierra Leone in 2014, citizens paraded through the streets of Freetown on Saturday, as they waved banners, danced, and participated in a display of fireworks. Amidst the celebration, there was also a hint of sadness as candles were lit in remembrance of those who lost their lives to the disease.

Sierra Leoneans jubilating  after their country has been declared Ebola free
Sierra Leoneans jubilating after their country has been declared Ebola free

The Ebola virus, which took over 4,000 lives, was first discovered in Sierra Leone in May 2014. After 365 cases, the government declared a state of emergency, calling for the closure of public places like schools and cinemas. Also, in order to curtail the spread, Liberia and Guinea’s borders were closed and Ebola treatment facilities quickly sprang up in different locations. However, with the rapid spread of the disease, these hospitals became quickly overwhelmed. Many of the caregivers, including the country’s only hemorrhagic fever expert ,Sheik Umar Khan, died of the infection and this slowed the functioning of the hospital due to the fear and danger of being infected.

By September, there were over a thousand cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone. With this rise in the number of infections and death, residents started abandoning dead bodies on the streets, over 20 bodies needed to be buried each day. With this devastating occurrence, the government announced a three-day lock down during which over 28,000 trained community workers and volunteers went from door-to-door, providing information on how to prevent the infection, as well as uncovering new cases. The government efforts paid off as 150 cases were discovered during this period. Still, the battle was still far from being over.

Ebola 2

The government further intensified its efforts when the President, Ernest Bai Koroma, launched the “Operation Western Area Surge” which was aimed at correcting past deficiencies in response and regaining the public’s confidence in reporting of cases by December. This effort paid off as over 400 new cases were uncovered and reported after.

Sierra Leone’s first major breakthrough was recorded on the 10th of January this year when the Pujehun district in the south east of the country reported no new cases for 42 days, so it was declared Ebola free.

By May, Sierra Leone had gone 8 days without an Ebola case, and was down to two confirmed cases of Ebola. According to a WHO weekly update, in July there were only three new reported cases, the lowest total in more than a year and by August, the country had its first week with no new cases, and one week later the last patients were released.

Sierra Leone finally claimed victory over Ebola on November 7, when it was declared by free of the deadly disease by the World Health Organization. Anders Nordström, the WHO’s Country Director, confirmed that 42 days had passed without any new cases, satisfying the criteria that the virus was no longer being transmitted.

Although, the country will now enter a 90-day period of heightened surveillance to make sure the virus does not return, the state of emergency has been lifted and the people can once again move around freely.

An emotional speech by Yusuf Kamara, a healthcare worker who lost 16 members of his family and survived the disease himself, reminded Sierra Leoneans of their journey to this point and how far they still need to go. “For us, Ebola is not over. We need your help to treat the many, many health problems we still suffer from and remember those who died at the hands of Ebola, and especially the children who have been affected by this outbreak.”

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