She is “one of the happiest persons on Earth today.” And she could be Liberia’s last Ebola patient in a devastating outbreak that began in West Africa more than a year ago.
Beatrice Yardolo, 58, was released from a treatment center in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, on Thursday after testing negative for the disease the day before. She is believed to be the country's last Ebola patient.
Like all such patients being discharged, she left behind her hospital clothes to be burned. She was given new clothes and wore brightly colored beads.
“I am very grateful to the Chinese treatment center and the Almighty God that I lived to see this day,” Yardolo, an English teacher from St. Paul’s Bridge neighborhood, told reporters. “I did not know I would make it.”
Her family, like many in Liberia, was hit hard by Ebola. She lost three of her children. The first to sicken was her son, a dental hygienist, who may have caught the virus, spread through bodily fluids, at work.
In order to be declared Ebola-free, the country now has to sit out 42 days – double the 21-day incubation period of the virus – without a fresh case.
But its neighbors, Guinea and Sierra Leone, have seen recent setbacks as unsafe burial practices continue, according to the World Health Organization, or WHO.
When the Ebola virus tore through neighborhoods in Monrovia last year, it was the first time the disease had spread in a crowded urban setting, making it extremely difficult to control.
At times the disease wiped out entire families, or left just one survivor. Children whose parents had died were left alone to fight the disease in treatment centers.
Survivors were shunned, and often turned out of their homes and neighborhoods. Some returned to their homes to find their belongings had been stolen by neighbors who had written them off as dead. The stigma also affected health workers.
Since the outbreak began, Liberia has seen 4,117 deaths believed to be due to Ebola out of 9,249 suspected and confirmed cases. The last two weeks marked the first week Liberia hasn’t reported a new case since May.
Nearly 24,000 people across the region have been infected, and 9,823 people have died worldwide, all but a handful of them in West Africa, according to WHO figures released Thursday.
“Today signifies a very great day for our country,” Tolbert Nyenswah, head of Liberia's efforts to combat Ebola, told reporters Thursday. “When the news was bad, we reported the bad news. We stand here today to signify good news.”
But he has cautioned against complacency, with neighboring countries still affected. He warned Wednesday that despite the encouraging progress, Liberia could not be considered Ebola-free.
“We are not out of the woods yet, we are still monitoring ... about 102 contacts,” Nyenswah told a Monrovia news conference. “But Liberia has gone 12 days since Feb. 19 when we reported the last confirmed case in our country, without a confirmed case.”
Liberia last month reopened its borders and schools as cases of the virus declined.
The WHO on Wednesday reported 132 new confirmed Ebola cases last week in Sierra Leone and Guinea, an increase on the previous week, when there were 99 new cases. It warned of the risk of cross-border transmission, which could see the virus re-emerging in Liberia.
Transmission of Ebola remains widespread in Sierra Leone, where eight districts are affected. In Guinea, there was a marked increase in the capital, Conakry, and in the Forecariah district east of the capital.
More than half of the 51 new cases in Guinea were from unknown sources, not from people who had known contact with Ebola patients, according to the WHO.
“The number of confirmed EVD [Ebola] deaths occurring in the community in Guinea and Sierra Leone remains high, suggesting that the need for early isolation and treatment is not yet understood, accepted or acted upon,” the WHO reported. It said there had been 16 reports of unsafe burials – in which people risk infection by touching highly contagious bodies of the dead – in Sierra Leone and Guinea in the second half of February.
There were also numerous cases in Guinea and Sierra Leone when members of the public evaded care or refused to cooperate, risking the further spread of the disease.
Ebola has crippled the regional economy, with trade stifled, markets quiet, some businesses shut down, many left jobless and thousands of productive lives lost.
World Bank phone surveys in Liberia report that 41% of respondents who had jobs before the crisis are now unemployed.
With Liberia’s economy reeling, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has called on Western nations to create a Marshall Plan-style aid effort to repair the regional economy.
The World Bank predicts Liberia's economy will grow up to 3% this year, about half the projection before Ebola hit. The decline in growth has cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars.
The epidemic exposed the neglected health systems in the worst affected West African countries and exposed health workers to risk.
According to WHO figures, Liberia had only 1.4 doctors for every 100,000 people before Ebola struck, and it lost 180 health workers to the virus, a catastrophic loss in a country desperately short of doctors. In the three worst affected countries, 830 health workers sickened and 491 died.
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