The worst outbreak of Ebola in history may finally be coming to an end, as the number of new cases drops below 20 cases for the first time since the middle of 2014.

The Ebola epidemic of 2014 to 2015 ravaged populations in western Africa. During the week ending May 3,  just nine new cases of Ebola infections were found in Sierra Leone, with the same number being reported in Guinea. Liberia continued a short string of weeks during which no new cases were reported. That nation of 4.3 million people hopes to be declared free of the disease on May 9. That day will mark 42 days since the last diagnosis — twice the incubation time for the virus that causes the disease.

"This is extraordinary progress. For those of us involved in this, we have got used to having good news one week, bad news the next, so we are not starting to celebrate yet, but we are feeling positive," David Nabarro, the United Nations envoy on Ebola, said.

Ebola has appeared and disappeared at least half a dozen times since the disease was first recognized in 1976. An outbreak in 2001 to 2002 infected 57 people, killing 43. A new strain of the virus from western Uganda struck 149 people, killing 37, in the country. As of May 5, 2015, more than 26,500 people likely contracted the virus during the most recent outbreak. Nearly 15,000 cases were confirmed by laboratories, and almost 11,000 patients died of the disease. Around 500 health care workers perished as they attempted to treat victims of the deadly virus.  

The human toll of all of these deaths is a tragedy. Along with this comes the financial drains on the three countries hardest-hit by the disease, which could lose up to 12 percent of their gross domestic product due to the epidemic.

The loss of medical staff as well as the diversion of money and resources into treating Ebola has also left the stricken nations with fewer means to protect against measles, malaria and other diseases.

Liberia took about two months to go from the time it reached fewer than 10 new cases a week to the time it reached zero.

"There are currently no cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in Senegal, Nigeria, Spain, the United States, Mali and the United Kingdom," CDC officials report.

The latest Ebola epidemic may draw to a close in the summer of 2015, but the deadly virus could be back anytime, ready to strike once again in Africa or beyond. The cost and impact of the disease has become worse during the nearly four-decade period since it was first seen. The next Ebola epidemic could take the lives of even more people than those masses struck down in the last year.

Scientists are working to develop a vaccine, and trials in West Africa are under way.

Photo: CDC Global | Flickr

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