Ebola: Then and Now - What a difference a year has made
One year ago, the West African Ebola outbreak was generating so many new cases and had spread to so many countries that the world was terrified. Many feared that the Ebola virus was the pathogen that would overwhelm humanity.
Now, one year later that terror has been replaced by confidence that strong leadership, adaptation of the response to cultures and environments and innovation have turned the tide. WHO is supporting the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to make sure they have strong surveillance systems, rapid response capacity and effective survivor care and screening in place to detect and respond to new cases.
All three of the hardest-hit countries remain at risk of new cases of the disease in the months to come due to persistence of the Ebola virus in semen and other body fluids of survivors.
One year ago, the situation with Ebola was completely different. There were hundreds of cases of Ebola every single week. The most extraordinary thing that has happened is that by the 1st of December last year the curve was starting to bend because 70% of cases were being isolated, 70% of people who died from Ebola were being safely buried.
Over the months, I watched how the world responded. Basically the world turned from disbelief to concern, to action, to total involvement. The Ebola outbreak became the business of so many people. Within months, we saw the numbers of cases starting to decline, mostly because people themselves took over their destiny and owned the response.
Then, Ebola was everywhere. It was in the news, it covered the billboards, the ambulances, almost every minute howling sirens, the smell of chlorine, the PPEs. Now that the outbreak is almost over, it is a great relief to see life going back to normal. Then I wouldn't dare shake the hand of a friend but now, I will give them a hug.
In September last year, the number of cases was increasing exponentially. We didn’t have the resources or the capacities to catch up with the outbreak. Today, our staff are out in the field, day to day, pounding the turf, trying to find cases and find contacts. And I think that has played an important role in contributing to a more effective international response in support of the countries.
Then, it didn’t matter whether we were talking about senior experts or experts with less experience, fear was the common denominator. Now, one of the biggest things is that people know where to reach for information, for extra training, and they know what they are supposed to receive.
At that point, even one more month of epidemic growth would have generated thousands of cases per week. Luckily it didn’t happen – the opening of laboratories and treatment centres, the widespread adoption of safe burial practices, and the changing behaviour of affected populations all helped to reverse the epidemic.
At this time last year, the lack of Ebola treatment capacity and isolation facilities was hampering the rest of the response. We only had a few brave teams from Medecins Sans Frontiere, Emergency, and the International Red Cross. Now, the Liberian, Sierra Leonean and Guinean teams are running fully functional Ebola treatment units.
I was in Sierra Leone last year when the Ebola outbreak had come roaring into Freetown. People understood that they needed to get help, but the hospitals, the Ebola treatment units were overwhelmed. Since then, there has been a year of very strong work. WHO and partners have put in place a strong Ebola response that has brought this outbreak almost to a close.
There may be up to 17,000 people who have survived Ebola virus disease, and they have medical problems, like persistent pains in the joints, also social problems and stigmatization. So it’s still kind of an emergent issue but maybe less in the public eye than in 2014, when there were so many acute cases.