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Ebola outbreak could be ‘gone by the summer,’ United Nations says

A woman mourns at her brother’s grave at a new cemetery for Ebola victims in Liberia’s Margibi County. (Ahmed Jallanzo/European Pressphoto Agency)
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Exactly one year ago, on March 23, 2014, the World Health Organization announced that there was an Ebola outbreak in Guinea. There were 49 cases and 29 deaths from the disease then. More than 10,000 people have since died of Ebola in West Africa, according to the WHO.

Although the disease’s spread exploded and then slowed over the course of the past year — and its grasp on Western attention has waxed and waned — it is clear that the deadly virus is not done with West Africa.

But Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the head of the United Nations’ Ebola mission, believes the outbreak could be “gone” by the end of August. He told the BBC that the U.N.’s initial efforts to fight the outbreak were slowed by a combination of “arrogance” and a “lack of knowledge,” 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 said.

[How Ebola sped out of control]

The prediction follows a disappointing development out of Liberia: The country, which hadn’t had an active Ebola case since March 5, has recorded another case, with officials diagnosing a new patient on Friday. The WHO requires 42 days without Ebola — twice the incubation period for the virus — before declaring that a country is free of it. Officials still aren’t sure how this new patient contracted Ebola.

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

Although several countries — including the United States — had cases of Ebola stemming from this epidemic, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone bore the worst of it. And the virus has not released the West African countries from its deadly grasp: In Sierra Leone, President Ernest Bai Koroma recently announced that he planned to try to slow transmission there with a series of national lockdowns 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, groups such as Doctors Without Borders have questioned their effectiveness.

[Deep in the jungle, hunting for the next Ebola outbreak]

Guinea is also still struggling to fight against the outbreak, which the WHO says began in the country. Dr. Jean-Pierre Lamarque, regional health advisor for the French foreign ministry, told Reuters that there was a “lack of vigilance” concerning the virus. “People are letting their guard down,” he warned.

Three doctors were diagnosed with Ebola in Guinea last week. As Reuters notes, the government has said transmission was likely avoidable. Here’s more from their report:

The discovery of the infections led to the identification and monitoring of up to 150 new high-risk contacts in Conakry just as Guinea, where the outbreak was first detected 12 months ago, appeared to be finally turning the corner.
Ebola has smoldered and then flared up anew in Guinea several times. The minutes of a meeting held by former colonial power France’s coordination team last week described the situation in Conakry as “pre-explosive” as they wait to see how many of the contacts will develop the disease.

Many international aid organizations have criticized early delays in fighting against the disease’s spread. Although the outbreak was officially declared a year ago, the first fatality of what became the deadliest Ebola epidemic in history probably occurred in December 2013, WHO wrote in a January assessment.

On Monday, Doctors Without Borders released a critical report about the Ebola response to mark the anniversary of the outbreak’s declaration. “The world at first ignored the calls for help and then belatedly decided to act,” the report reads. “Meanwhile, months were wasted and lives were lost.”

The group notes that the death toll remains unknown, because “the resulting collapse of health services means that untreated malaria, complicated deliveries and car crashes will have multiplied the direct Ebola deaths many times over.”

The latest data from the WHO, released Monday, put Ebola’s death toll in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea at 10,299.

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

[The fear of Ebola led to slayings — and a whole village was punished]

The report also accuses the governments of Sierra Leone and Guinea of being “initially very reluctant to recognize 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 officials 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.”

[This story, originally posted at 8:55 a.m., has been updated.]

Health workers carry the body of a suspected Ebola victim at a new graveyard on the outskirts of Monrovia. (Abbas Dulleh/AP)