The World Health Organization announced a big milestone today: for the first time in over a year, the country at the epicenter of the ebola outbreak has gone one full week without any new cases. If present trend continue, Sierra Leone will be on a path to being declared officially ebola free by October.
What’s more: there is currently only a single chain of transmission under WHO monitoring. This makes isolating and stopping the spread of the disease much, much more likely.
Why now? According to this release from the WHO, there seems to be a high degree of coordination between the government, international health authorities and even the local population that is under quarantine and observation. Eighteen months after the start of the outbreak, ebola is finally on its heels in Sierra Leone.
Effectively tracking chains of transmission means finding every person who has been in contact with someone proven to be infected with Ebola, monitoring them closely for symptoms for 21 days and rapidly moving them to a treatment centre if they develop symptoms of potential Ebola.
In Tonkolili, a young man, who worked in Freetown but returned to his home village every month to bring food and money to his extended family, died in a hospital where he was being treated for malaria. As is done with all deaths, to ensure no case of Ebola is missed, a swab was taken. It tested positive for Ebola.
Tonkolili had not seen a case of Ebola virus disease for more than 150 days, but the lessons learned during the outbreak in December 2014 had not been forgotten. The government, WHO and other UN and international partners sent a rapid response team into the district and worked with the village chief and village taskforce to identify and monitor everyone who had been in contact with the young man…
Last Friday, 595 people “graduated” from quarantine in Tonkolili. This included members of the community and patients, pregnant women, nurses, doctors and other staff who were released early on Friday morning from the hospital where they had been confined for 21 days. Later same day, a formal ceremony was held at Massessehbeh during which the President of Sierra Leone formally cut the quarantine tape.
Joyful villagers streamed through the cut quarantine tapes, women linking arms to dance along the road, children beating water bottles in time to the singing and dancing. However, the occasion was not joyful for everyone. 43 people remain quarantined until the end of this week. Another 38 people remain in quarantine in Freetown until the 29th of August.
This is a big deal. Since the start of the outbreak, some 13,400 people in Sierra Leone have been infected with Ebola, and nearly 4,000 have succumbed to the disease. If the country can go 21 days without any known new ebola infection, and then go a further 21 days without any new transmission of ebola then Sierra Leone will be declared ebola-free.
It still too early to declare victory, though. There’s still a decent chance that one of these contacts under observation may develop symptoms. But that fact is, this is an outbreak that has come under control. The system is working.