After last patient in Liberia tests negative, WHO hails monumental achievement
The World Health Organisation has declared the end of the Ebola epidemic in west Africa, with all known chains of transmission of the virus stopped.
The announcement comes two years after the first case in a small rural village in Guinea, 42 days after the last patient tested negative in Liberia and almost two months after the last case in Sierra Leone.
The virus, which can kill within five days of infection, devastated the regions economies and ripped through communities, killing more than 11,000 people and infecting more than 28,500.
The WHO, which admitted that it had failed to respond quickly enough when the virus was spreading in the summer of 2014, said the battle was not over yet.
Dr Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, said: Detecting and breaking every chain of transmission has been a monumental achievement.
So much was needed and so much was accomplished by national authorities, heroic health workers, civil society, local and international organisations and generous partners. But our work is not done and vigilance is necessary to prevent new outbreaks, she added.
Liberia had been declared Ebola free in May 2014 but was hit again months later because of the latency of the virus.
While Ebola clears from the blood relatively quickly in survivors, it can remain in some male survivors for up to a year, causing a risk of sexual transmission. Virologists discovered last year that the virus can also linger in the spinal fluid, after the Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey developed meningitis caused by the virus nine months after she had received the all clear. The case of American doctor Ian Crozier also demonstrated that the virus can also linger in ocular fluid after one of his eyes became damaged and changed colour.
On Wednesday, a report from a group of international health experts convened in the wake of the crisis warned that infectious diseases represented a threat matched only by wars and natural disasters when it comes to endangering life and disrupting societies.
But despite the scale of the menace, the Commission on Creating a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future found that efforts to prepare for pandemics have been chronically underfunded. It says a global investment of 3bn each year or 40p a person would go a long way to reduce the threat posed by infectious diseases.
The report recommends strengthening health systems in low-income countries as a first line of defence, establishing a permanent WHO health emergency centre to lead and coordinate defences and action, and stepping up research and development into infectious diseases through an annual investment of at least 686m.
The WHO has faced fierce and sustained criticism over its handling of the crisis: the delay in sounding the alarm slowed the deployment of medical personnel, protective gear and medicines, and prompted calls for the organisation to be stripped of its role in declaring disease outbreaks as international emergencies. The WHO was also found to have toned down its own admissions of failure.
In April last year, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, appointed a high-level panel to study the lessons of the Ebola crisis and improve the worlds response to health crises. A WHO spokesman said it had learned much from the outbreak and had already embarked on a profound shift towards becoming a fully operational emergency organisation.
Joanne Liu, Mdecins Sans Frontires international president, welcomed the announcement but warned against complacency.
Today is a day of celebration and relief that this outbreak is finally over, she said. We must all learn from this experience to improve how we respond to future epidemics and to neglected diseases. This Ebola response was not limited by lack of international means but by a lack of political will to rapidly deploy assistance to help communities. The needs of patients and affected communities must remain at the heart of any response and outweigh political interests.