Sierra Leone is once again counting down the days until the latest flare-up of Ebola can be declared over. As part of the inter-agency response to the flare-up, dozens of people who were in contact with two individuals who had tested positive for Ebola were isolated and placed under medical observation. With the monitoring period now over, they are breathing a sigh of relief as their lives get back to normal.
After confirmation that a young woman in Tonkolili District died from Ebola on 12 January, Sierra Leonean health authorities, WHO and other partners rapidly identified dozens of people who had been in contact with her when she was ill and placed them under medical monitoring for 21 days, the incubation period of the virus. Just over a week later, the young woman’s aunt was confirmed positive for Ebola virus disease and immediately began treatment. Her contacts were also identified, isolated and closely observed for 21 days.
For the contacts of the two women, all of whom have since been discharged from medical monitoring, those three weeks of isolation were an uneasy period of fear and uncertainty.
“I had sleepless nights and worried a lot about my health and the situation for my whole family,” said Ya Marie Kanu from Magburaka Town in Tonkolili District, who was considered a high risk contact because she helped prepare the body of the index case for burial. “Now that I have been discharged, my heart feels really at rest”.
Her daughter, Abibatu Conteh, said the 21 days her mother was in a voluntary quarantine facility felt like it would never end.
“We thought we would not be reunited with our mother again,” said Abibatu. “We have witnessed a lot of horrors and seen how families have been devastated by the disease, so my whole family was fearful that our mother might have contracted the disease and would soon fall ill.”
But Ya Marie did not fall ill. She was among over 100 contacts visited and monitored three times a day by a team of district health and emergency specialists and WHO staff. And she was one of 214 contacts, and contacts of contacts, who received a dose of the experimental Ebola vaccine as a means of containing the flare-up.
On the day the contacts were discharged from isolation facilities and home quarantine, residents in and around Magburaka Town came out to celebrate and dance. Those released from quarantine, including Amadu Jalloh, the father of the young woman who died on 12 January, also received a discharge package of food and household items supplied by UNICEF, World Food Programme and Plan international.
And there was another reason for celebration and relief. On 4 February, the aunt of the woman who had died was released from an Ebola treatment centre in Freetown after testing negative for Ebola virus disease twice. Her recovery triggered the start of a new 42-day countdown in Sierra Leone. On 17 March, if there are no new cases of Ebola, this latest flare-up of the virus will be declared over.
“The response to this latest flare-up underscores the importance of quickly identifying contacts of a person infected with or who died from Ebola and separating them from the community in order to prevent further transmission,” says Dr Anders Nordstrom, WHO country representative in Sierra Leone. “It illustrates the capacity now in place in Sierra Leone to manage such emergencies should Ebola resurface in the future.”