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Ebola at One Year: Cautious Africa Peeks Around a Corner

European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department

John Burger - published on 03/11/15

Liberia counting down days until disease-free declaration, but pain and precautions remain

It has been one very long year since the World Health Organization reported a major Ebola outbreak in Guinea, in western Africa. The disease spread rapidly to Sierra Leone and Liberia and other countries, threatening to become a worldwide crisis.

But the situation in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, has improved to such an extent that Father Sony Pottenplackal feels it’s safe for him to return to India for a home visit.

“There are occasional reports of suspected cases here and there, on the outskirts of the city, but the total number of cases are very few,” he said in a telephone interview as he prepared to board a flight to his native Kerala. “People are doing their normal things, and you won’t find much fear. But we still take preventive measures: washing one’s hands [with a chlorine solution] and taking one’s temperature has become kind of a normal practice.”

The Salesian priest, who is principal of the Don Bosco Technical High School in Monrovia, said the adoption of such hygiene practices early on kept the death toll lower than it could have been—bad as it was.

The outbreak has taken almost 10,000 lives in the three countries. As of March 5, according to the WHO, Liberia has had a total of over 9300 cases in the 2014-2015 epidemic, with over 4100 deaths. Sierra Leone has had over 11,600 cases and over 3600 deaths, while Guinea has experienced almost 3300 cases and almost 2200 deaths.

There were a small number of cases reported in Nigeria and Mali and a single case reported in Senegal. Several cases, including one death, occurred in the United States.

It was the largest Ebola epidemic in history, but there is cautious optimism that the worst is past. Authorities in Liberia discharged the last Ebola patient in the country March 5, according to the New York Times. There were no other confirmed cases of Ebola in Liberia, and the country is anxiously counting the 42 days required by the WHO to be declared Ebola-free.

Liberia has reopened schools, and with children walking to classes, local merchants are making a living selling food and knick-knacks on the street, Father Pottenplackal said. But that makes only a dent in the devastating unemployment rate. Ebola took not only lives but wrecked Liberia’s economy.

The priest said that while the Salesian parish in Monrovia lost four parishioners to the disease, the school was spared. Nevertheless, as an educator, he was troubled by the forced idleness of students for months on end. The parish tried to provide books for them to study at home, since they could not assemble in school, and Father Pottenplackl took to the airwaves of a local Catholic radio station to give parents ideas on what they could do to keep their children active.

“I touched upon how parents can help children do self-study, how to motivate them to read, how even newspapers can be used as learning tools, writing a journal as a learning tool,” he said. “Writing [about one’s] experiences of Ebola and other daily events as a therapeutic means to overcome boredom and trauma healing.”

Ebola is also waning in other areas. U.N. experts said recently that the spread of the disease in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone has dropped to almost 10 percent of what it was in September. But new cases continue to emerge in Sierra Leone.

An American nurse, Kelly Suter, spent four months in that country from October to January, as part of an emergency response team for International Medical Corps. working in a hospital on the grounds as a leper colony on land owned by the government and built by Save the Children.

She said one of the hardest parts of the assignment was seeing people—especially children

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