With West Africa set to be declared free of Ebola virus transmission, UN chief calls for vigilance

Ebola burial teams in Sierra Leone are still performing hundreds of precautionary burials each week, even though there haven’t been any cases in a few weeks. Photo: Aurelie Marrier d’Unienville/IRIN

13 January 2016 – On the eve of West Africa being declared free of Ebola virus transmission, top United Nations officials today highlighted the “extraordinary” global cooperation mustered to tackle an epidemic that killed over 11,300 people, at the same time calling for vigilance against future flare-ups.

“Governments will need resources to help communities prevent infection, detect potential cases and respond rapidly and effectively,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a regular informal General Assembly meeting on Ebola recover and response, stressing that the international community must make good on the pledges made in 2015 to support the over 10,000 survivors in West Africa.

Remarks were also made by World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan (via video link), Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Helen Clark, Special Adviser on 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and former Special Envoy on Ebola Briefing Dr. David Nabarro, and the Deputy Health Minister of Liberia, His Excellency Tolbert Nyenswah (video link), among others, including Ebola survivors.

Sierra Leone declared the end of Ebola transmission on 7 November and Guinea, where the epidemic began two years ago, on 29 December, with both countries now observing a 90-day period of heightened vigilance. Liberia is slated to declare the end of the recent flare-up tomorrow.

“That means that tomorrow – January 14th – all known chains of transmission will have been stopped in West Africa,” Mr. Ban said. “These achievements could not have happened without the decisive leadership of the Presidents and other national authorities of the three affected countries, and the engagement of all communities.

“Of course, significant challenges remain. We can anticipate future flare-ups of Ebola in the coming year,” he added, noting that Liberia’s experience in combating two flare-ups shows the resilience and capacity of affected countries to reactivate emergency response mechanisms and contain the virus.

“But we also expect the potential and frequency of those flare-ups to decrease over time. Governments will need resources to help communities prevent infection, detect potential cases and respond rapidly and effectively.”

Apart from the original chain of transmission, there were 10 new small outbreaks between March and November this year, apparently due to the re-emergence of a persistent virus from survivors. One challenge is that after recovery and clearing the virus from the bloodstream, the virus may persist in the semen of some male survivors for as long as nine to 12 months.

Mr. Ban paid tribute to the “courageous health workers, burial teams, and others,” and called for a concerted effort to counter the distress, mistrust and stigma caused by Ebola.

In the face of “an active outbreak, a rising death toll, an exponential infection curve, and perhaps, above all, uncertainty and mounting fear […] our Organization faced a fundamental test of our collective strength and will – and we mobilized,” he emphasized.

“Governments and communities in the region stepped up in extraordinary ways. Dozens of countries provided life-saving contributions. We created the first-ever United Nations emergency health mission and coordinated a unified response, with key contributions from UN Country Teams,” he said.

“The end of Ebola transmission in West Africa is testament to what we can achieve when multilateralism works as it should, bringing the international community to work alongside national governments in caring for their people,” the Secretary-General said.

General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft also praised the role of national authorities, local communities, health workers, ordinary citizens, civil society and the international community in combatting the epidemic, including the Assembly itself.

“Both by generating political engagement through six dedicated meetings and by establishing the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), the Assembly demonstrated solidarity and an ability to take swift action in the face of an emergency,” he said, while warning that the crisis is far from over since both survivors and the three Governments continue to face considerable challenges.

“It is important therefore that the international community remain seized of this matter; that partners continue to provide support to affected communities; and that lessons are learned on how best to prevent and manage future global health crisis,” he said.

For her part, WHO chief Dr. Chan said tremendous strides had been made towards defeating the largest, longest and most complex Ebola outbreak in history. And with Liberia set to be removed tomorrow from the list of countries with ongoing Ebola virus transmission, marking the first time that all three most-affected countries had logged 42 days without a case of the disease – twice the incubation period of the virus – “this is a monumental achievement.”

Indeed, she explained, every chain of transmission had to be broken; tens of thousands of contacts had to be monitored. And while vigilance and response capacity must be maintained throughout 2016, WHO expected that “all survivors will have cleared the virus from their bodies by the end of the year.” Meanwhile, the countries would need international solidarity to ensure a safe transition, and the period of intense vigilance must continue as recovery proceeded.

“While the job is far from being finished, the situation will not return to what it was 15 months ago. The steps taken at national and international levels to defeat the disease were unprecedented [and] no one, no one, will let this virus take off and run away again,” underscored Dr. Chan.


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