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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 8th April 2016 > FREE OF WHAT?


Declaring Sierra Leone “Ebola-free” is senseless—and potentially dangerous


GERTRUDE SIEH, a handsome 60-year-old woman with gray braids, was among the first in her community to enroll in a trial in January last year to test two Ebola vaccines. “There were rumors that we will get sick and become like a monster,” Sieh told me a year later as she sat outside her zinc house in Popo Beach, which lost 40 people in July 2014, when Ebola was burning through Liberia’s capital of Monrovia and its surrounding suburbs. Back then, monsters seemed real: Bodies littered the streets while denial and conspiratorial hearsay ran far and wide, and the international community had yet to wake up to the scale of the crisis.

Since Sieh signed up for the study, the World Health Organization has declared Liberia “Ebola-free” three times. On January 14 this year, it declared all of West Africa Ebola-free. “Detecting and breaking every chain of transmission has been a monumental achievement,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, the director-general of the WHO. Less than 24 hours later, the Sierra Leonean government announced that the body of recently deceased 22-year-old Mariatu Jalloh had tested positive for Ebola. Later, a WHO report would find that health care workers did not wear protective equipment when treating Jalloh and had sent her body back to her family without testing it for the virus. In turn, her family bathed Jalloh’s body for burial in traditional Islamic fashion, sparking fears of another outbreak. Luckily, only Jalloh’s aunt was infected; she was discharged in early February. Then the next 42-day countdown began—two times what researchers believe is the maximum incubation period for the virus.

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