Liberia is now officially free of Ebola, according to an announcement from the World Health Organization delivered on May 9. The occasion marked 42 days since the last case of the deadly disease was diagnosed in the African nation.

In Sierra Leone and Guinea, which share national borders with Liberia, additional cases continue to be diagnosed.

The Ebola outbreak of 2014-15 was the worst ever recorded, taking the lives of more than 4,700 people in Liberia alone. More than 11,000 people lost their lives to the deadly disease in the three nations most affected by the illness.

"Interruption of transmission is a monumental achievement for a country that reported the highest number of deaths in the largest, longest, and most complex outbreak since Ebola first emerged in 1976. At the peak of transmission, which occurred during August and September 2014, the country was reporting from 300 to 400 new cases every week," WHO reported.

The hardest-hit region in Liberia was the capital of Monrovia. Treatment centers were inundated with patients, and at one point bodies littered the streets for days before they were collected. Schools and businesses closed, along with the majority of health centers. Patients, unable to check into hospitals, returned home, where they infected others.

Many health care workers in the nation of 4.3 million people continued to treat patients, even as supplies of protective gear dwindled. In all, 375 caregivers in Liberia contracted the virus, and 189 succumbed to the disease.

"At times when you are at your worst, it is when you become your best. That was what happened to us. The task is not yet over .... The challenge is that we stay at zero," Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, said.

The nation has asked its Muslim population to pray for the dead on Friday, May 15, and for Christians to do the same on Sunday. The government also declared May 11 as a day of thanksgiving.

Now, the battle to eradicate the disease in Sierra Leone and Guinea continues. The number of new patients identified each week with the disease has declined to less than 20 in both nations combined. In Liberia, it took about two months to get from single digits to zero, and heath care workers expect a similar timetable in Guinea and Sierra Leone. One of the challenges is likely to be "hidden spots" of the countryside, with little access to health care centers, where diagnoses could be performed and reported. Still, the eradication of the disease from the hardest-hit nation in Africa is a relief to the local population.

"This is a great achievement, but there is still much work to be done to strengthen Liberia's health system so that an epidemic like this will never happen again," Rajesh Panjabi, chief executive of Last Mile Health, said.

The national awareness campaign of the government to educate Liberians on how to protect themselves from Ebola was critical, a U.N. official noted. Despite 42 days without a new case, marking double the virus' maximum incubation period, people are urged to remain vigilant until neighboring countries are also declared clear of the disease.

"We can't take our foot off the gas until all three countries record 42 days with no cases," Mariateresa Cacciapuoti, head of Doctors Without Borders mission in Liberia, said in a statement, urging Liberia to step up cross-border watch to prevent Ebola getting back into the country.

Photo: UK Department for International Development | Flickr

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