Monday, March 23, 2015

A Year Ago, an Ebola Outbreak Was Declared: It Could Be ‘Gone by the Summer’ UN Says
By Abby Ohlheiser
Washington Post
March 23 at 8:55 AM

On March 23, 2014, the World Health Organization announced publicly that there was an Ebola outbreak in Guinea. There were 49 cases and 29 deaths from the disease then. Now, more than 10,000 people have died of Ebola in West Africa. Although the disease’s spread exploded and then slowed over the course of that year – and its grasp on western attention has waxed and waned – it is clear that the virus is not done with West Africa.

But Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the head of the United Nations’ Ebola mission, believes the end of the outbreak there could be coming by the end of August. He told the BBC the UN’s initial efforts to fight the outbreak were slowed by a combination of a “lack of knowledge,” and “arrogance,” but that the international organization had “learn[ed] lessons” from that.

“We have been running away from giving any specific date, but I am pretty sure myself that it will be gone by the summer,” he added.

The estimate follows a disappointing development out of Liberia. The country had no Ebola cases from March 5 – when it discharged its last active case - until Friday, when officials diagnosed a new patient with the disease. The World Health Organization requires 42 days without Ebola – or twice the incubation period for the virus – before declaring that a country is free of it. Officials still aren’t sure how the patient contracted Ebola.

Still, the fact that Liberia came that close to being Ebola-free demonstrates some limited success in sustained efforts to fight the disease. At the heart of the epidemic, more than 4,200 people died of Ebola there.

Although several countries had cases of Ebola stemming from this epidemic, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone bore the worst of it. In Sierra Leone, President Ernest Bai Koroma recently announced that he planned to try to slow transmission there with a series of national lockdowns in late March and into April. Lockdowns, tried once before by the country, are controversial: while the government has said they’re necessary to help stop the spread of the disease, some groups like Doctors Without Borders say that their effectiveness is questionable.

Many international aid organizations, including those like the UN that have been involved in the fight against the epidemic, have criticized early delays in fighting against the disease’s spread. Although it was officially declared a year ago, the first fatality of this outbreak probably occurred in December 2013, the WHO wrote in a January assessment.

Doctors Without Borders also released a critical report on response to the Ebola crisis to mark a year since the outbreak declaration. “The world at first ignored the calls for help and then belatedly decided to act” to fight Ebola in West Africa, the report reads. “Meanwhile, months were wasted and lives were lost.”

“Today, describing the epidemic as ‘unprecedented’ is stating the obvious, though for months [Doctors Without Borders] felt alone in this analysis,” the group says of its early time on the ground in West Africa. Among other international health groups, the report singles out the WHO, writing that “the WHO should have recognised much earlier that this out- break required more hands-on deployment.”

The report also accuses the governments of Sierra Leone and Guinea of being “initially very reluctant to recognise the severity of the outbreak,” which had the effect of obstructing some early efforts to fight the outbreak. However, that initial reluctance is “far from unusual in outbreaks of Ebola – or indeed other dangerous infectious diseases,” The report says. “There is often little appetite to immediately sound the alarm for fear of causing public panic.”

As the aid group notes, it can be politically difficult for a government to respond to an unprecedented outbreak. In Liberia, where Doctors Without Borders believes the government responded with more transparency, the government’s early handling of the outbreak was widely criticized by Liberians as “scaremongering,” and “a ploy to raise international assistance.”

Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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