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Liberia's new Ebola cases rattle neighboring Sierra Leone, Guinea

Liberia, which had been declared Ebola-free, has responded quickly, but the setback has dealt a blow to Sierra Leone and Guinea, which have looked to Liberia for how best to confront the outbreak.

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    Ebola health workers spray disinfectant on an ambulance that was used to transport two people suspected of having the Ebola virus on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, Wednesday, July 1, 2015. Liberian officials confirmed a second Ebola case Wednesday in the same town where the disease was detected days earlier on the corpse of a teenager, seven weeks after the country was declared Ebola-free.
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For Haja Koroma, the Ebola news coming out of neighboring Liberia is worrisome.

The Kenema City-based nurse was just getting comfortable with the idea that her town had been virus-free for more than 100 days — and could stay that way. Schools reopened in March and employment rates are returning to pre-Ebola crisis levels, all efforts to try recover a lost year in Sierra Leone’s battle with Ebola.

But on Sunday, a teenager from a small town outside Monrovia, Liberia, died of the virus, breaking the West African country’s “Ebola-free” designation after almost two months of no cases. And on Thursday, the Liberian Ministry of Information confirmed two more new cases.

“I don’t feel comfortable with the cases reported in Liberia,” Ms. Koroma says. “Some of my colleagues died of Ebola in trying to save others with the disease.” Her district, Kenema, is on the Liberian border.

Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea suffered the most during the Ebola outbreak, which has killed 11,200 people throughout West Africa — 3,900 of those in Sierra Leone as of early June. Despite the progress in all three countries, Guinea and Sierra Leone have continued to see 20 to 27 cases a week since late May, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)

In Sierra Leone, key industries like agriculture that were abandoned during the height of the crisis have yet to fully recover, and nearly one-third of workers have declared lower revenues than before the crisis, the World Bank reports. Recovery has been steady, but frustratingly slow.

Liberia has been quick to respond to the new cases, working with the WHO and the Center for Disease Control. But the new cases are dealing a blow to morale in Sierra Leone and Guinea — both of which have looked to Liberia’s successful efforts for inspiration in their last push toward fully eradicating the virus. Paolo Conteh, the chief executive officer of the National Ebola Response Center, often describes that last effort as “the bumpy ride to getting to zero.” 

“There is always a possibility of Ebola resurfacing even after a country is declared Ebola free, as we see in Liberia,” says Brima Kargbo, chief medical office of Sierra Leone's health ministry, citing by way of example the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Close eye on Liberia

The Ebola virus has stubbornly hung on in Sierra Leone, even though 78.6 percent of the country is virus-free. The country can only be declared free from Ebola after 42 days without a case.

“Though the case in Liberia is far away from the border with Sierra Leone, it is disturbing, as a single case could restart a whole new outbreak of Ebola,” says Sidie Tunis of the National Ebola Response Center.

Sierra Leone reported three new cases of Ebola in Port Loko and Kambia on Tuesday, with a total of 49 confirmed cases recorded in June. Mr. Tunis blames the spike on secret burials and people still turning to herbal treatments instead of going to hospitals.

Those tracking the case in Liberia have identified 102 contacts, and Liberia’s health ministry says that about 14 health workers who had contact with the dead teen have been put under self-observation. But a herbalist who treated the teen that died is apparently on the run, having evaded authorities, Agence France-Presse reported

“We await the details from Liberia on the case there but it is a reminder that [Ebola] could resurface at any time,” Conteh says.  “It will be interesting to see how the Liberian response teams react to contain the outbreak and we will be watching the situation very closely.”

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