Guinea is set to celebrate with concerts and fireworks Wednesday, following the World Health Organization’s announcement that the country is now officially Ebola-free.
On Tuesday, WHO declared that after two years and over 2,500 deaths, the Ebola epidemic in Guinea has officially ended. The announcement marks the passing of two 21-day incubation periods since the last person to have contracted Ebola — a baby girl called Noubia — was cured of the virus.
“Of course people are happy,” says Safiatou L. Diallo, a World Bank operations officer based in Conakry, Guinea. “But the mood here is also very humble. People have lost their entire families, and we are still remembering and mourning that.”
The announcement in Guinea is a milestone, because “this is the first time that all three countries — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — have stopped the original chains of transmission that were responsible for starting this devastating outbreak two years ago,” said WHO regional director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti in a statement.
“But at the same time it’s important to emphasize that this is not the end of Ebola forever,” Dr. Daniel Lucey, a professor of immunology at Georgetown University, who has worked at Ebola treatment wards in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
For the next three months, Guinea will be in a state of heightened surveillance to make sure the virus doesn’t re-emerge as it has done twice in Liberia. “The virus in some cases can persist in the semen of men who’ve survived the infection for up to nine or even 12 months,” Lucey explains. People can also contract the virus from animals.
Plus, in some survivors, the after-effects can include blurred vision, hearing loss and joint pain.”Clearly now is not the time to slow down,” Lucey says. It’s a time to build up health infrastructure, and continue developing and testing vaccines and anti-viral treatments to prepare for any future flare-ups, he says.
The World Bank, WHO and other aid groups have said they will continue to work with the governments in Guinea as well as Sierra Leone and Liberia to provide survivors with medical care as well as counseling to help them return to normal life.
Diallo from the World Bank points out that the epidemic has also left hundreds of children orphaned. Several local associations as well as international groups are now working to find homes for these children and get them back to school, she says. “But unfortunately this may take a long time. And they will need lots of support — they will be affected forever by the epidemic.”
There is also the issue of stigma against survivors, Diallo adds. Over the next year, public campaigns explaining that it’s safe to live and work around Ebola survivors, to shake their hands or breathe the same air will be crucial.
The epidemic had been especially difficult to contain in Guinea. As NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported earlier this year, mistrust, anger and denial in parts of the country hindered efforts to cure the infected and curb the spread of illness.
“No one expected it to be so hard or take so long to stop this disease. It just demolished entire villages and families,” Diallo says. “It will take some time to rebuild.”