The effects of the deadly Ebola outbreak in Liberia could last a generation, the country’s president has said, after the World Health Organisation declared it free from the epidemic which has killed thousands of people.
The WHO made the announcement on Saturday, saying there have been no new cases for 42 days, twice the maximum incubation period of the deadly disease.
But new cases were reported elsewhere in west Africa this week, in neighbouring Sierra Leone and in Guinea, the other two countries hit hardest by the worst Ebola outbreak in history which has left 11,000 people dead.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said the damage wrought by a disease that killed more than 4,700 Liberians was “a scar on the conscience of the world”, adding that for some survivors “the pain and grief will take a generation to heal”.
“Young Liberians who only months before strode confidently to school with dreams of a future as an engineer, a teacher or a doctor – all of which Liberia desperately needs – had their lives mercilessly cut short,” she said.
But before touring health centres in the capital Monrovia with US ambassador Deborah Mala, she added that she was confident her country was now prepared “to deal quickly with any new cases should they emerge”.
The international response to the Ebola outbreak has been roundly criticised as too slow and ineffective. While praising the role international partners played in getting Liberia, the worst affected country, to zero cases, Sirleaf said the fight “got off to slow start” and that today’s announcement should be a “call to arms”.
Officials and survivors remain cautious about openly celebrating the end of Ebola in Liberia, as the continued presence of the disease in the region means just one sick patient slipping over the border into Liberia could spark a resurgence of cases.
But in a statement, the WHO said: “Interruption of transmission is a monumental achievement for a country that reported the highest number of deaths in the largest, longest, and most complex outbreak since Ebola first emerged in 1976. At the peak of transmission, which occurred during August and September 2014, the country was reporting from 300 to 400 new cases every week.
“During those two months, the capital city Monrovia was the setting for some of the most tragic scenes from West Africa’s outbreak: gates locked at overflowing treatment centres, patients dying on the hospital grounds, and bodies that were sometimes not collected for days.”
Photograph: Zoom Dosso/AFP/Getty Images