The past year has been a roller coaster ride for West Africa, with Ebola coming and going and coming and going, and then coming once again. But now, after nearly two years battling the deadly virus, the region finally seems to be Ebola-free. None of the three countries most affected – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – has had an active case since mid-November.
Experts warn that there will likely be a re-emergence of Ebola at some point, but governments, health workers, communities and aid agencies all say they are now better prepared to stop any new flare-ups.
The region may enter 2016 Ebola-free, but the impact of the outbreak is still being felt by many. More than 28,600 people were infected and 11,315 died. Hundreds of thousands more lost jobs or loved ones or had their lives in some way turned upside down. Economic losses totalled an estimated $1.6 billion in 2015 alone, according to the World Bank. Kids finally returned to school this year after months of disrupted classes, but the long-term impact on children and education won’t be known for years to come. And, despite waning stigma, not all survivors or Ebola workers have been accepted back into their communities.
IRIN has covered the ups and downs of the outbreak from the start, as far back as March 2014. Here’s a look back at a selection of our Ebola stories from the past year:
Before the Ebola outbreak, many Guineans used to rely solely on local medicine men or “féticheurs” to treat their various ailments and illnesses. But as local communities watched both their people and traditional healers die from Ebola – their powers apparently not strong enough to combat the virus – more and more of the sick began taking the advice of health workers and seeking out care from licensed doctors and nurses.
For a long time after the outbreak began, families were forbidden from holding traditional funerals, due to fears the events would help spread the virus. They thought they’d never be able to give their loved ones a proper goodbye. But as more and more communities were declared Ebola-free this year, and public gatherings resumed, many finally got that chance.
A great number of Ebola survivors, particularly early on in the outbreak, lost their jobs, were excluded from community events, and were often even shunned by their own families. But thanks to large-scale education campaigns, many are now being welcomed back home.
West Africa is known for its friendly, personal interactions – even among strangers. But Ebola, which is transmitted through bodily contact, changed all that. Too afraid to get too close to anyone, many people gave up their most common practice: the handshake.
Guinea’s Gueckedou region, where the outbreak began, was declared Ebola-free in January 2015. But this photo feature and reportage from IRIN West Africa Editor Jennifer Lazuta show how, months later, the extent of the damage was only just starting to be realised.
Things in Sierra Leone and Liberia were looking up mid-year: unemployment was down for the first time since the outbreak began and schools had reopened after nine months of closure. But many families said they still didn’t have enough to eat and malnutrition rates among children under the age of five remained high. Just 10 percent of students initially returned to class, according to Save the Children. Many were too afraid; others had already turned to selling goods on the street, in order to support their families.
Some 17,000 people are believed to have survived Ebola in West Africa. But their ordeal is far from over. More than half say they are suffering from debilitating joint pain, headaches, and fatigue, and at least 25 percent have experienced some degree of change in vision, with many now close to being blind, according to the World Health Organization. Their healthcare options remain limited.
More than 20,000 Liberians risked their lives to bury the dead during the Ebola outbreak. Many left their former jobs to help contain the virus. Others simply volunteered their time. Now, due to ongoing stigma, they are unable to find new work. Burial workers in Sierra Leone faced a similar fate: months after the last Ebola case was found, volunteers were still being shunned by their families and communities.
Nearly 6,000 children in Liberia lost either one or both parents to Ebola. While many found loving homes with friends, family or neighbors, not all were so lucky.
Liberia was in dire need of doctors and nurses before the Ebola outbreak began. Then, more than 200 health workers died from Ebola. Now, at a time when the country needs new staff at clinics more than ever, many Liberians say they are too afraid to enter medicine. In Sierra Leone, where more than 220 health workers died from Ebola, many worry about the impact on pregnant women. The World Bank has warned that the country’s maternity mortality rate could increase by up to 74 percent because of the Ebola crisis.
The WHO has vowed to reform following widespread criticism of its delayed and “inadequate” response to the Ebola outbreak. WHO’s newly appointed regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, says the organisation has learnt lessons and become stronger after making changes, but health experts say there is still a long way to go.