May 11, 2015 04:44 PM EDT
A year later and over 4,000 dead, Liberia can finally breathe a sigh of relief as The World Health Organization (WHO) declares the country Ebola free.
"The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Liberia is over," according to a WHO statement given at the emergency command center in Monrovia.
But this doesn't mean Africa is in the clear. In fact, if the countries surrounding Liberia are included, the death toll from the past year's outbreak soars to more than 11,000, making the current outbreak five times deadlier that all previous outbreaks combined.
Tolbert Nyenswah, a senior health official who led Liberian's Ebola response efforts, claimed the end of the epidemic was "a victory for Liberia and Liberians."
However, he urged caution. "...we are very much concerned about Guinea and Sierra Leone."
The two small West African countries, located just north of Liberia, each reported nine cases in the past week, which are the lowest weekly totals of the year, but still a concern. Dr. Bruce Aylward, head of WHO's Ebola response efforts in the region, warned that the source of transmission was still uncertain and that investigators were still trying to track down the virus.
The origins of the initial outbreak are still unresolved. According to The New York Times, some scientists believe the virus is likely circulating among wildlife in the region. Ebola, like HIV, is believed to have originated in certain animal species before subsequently being passed to humans. If it is being harbored in neighboring wildlife, the chance for human infection remains real.
Fortunately, much has been learned from the Liberian outbreak. Public education throughout the region helped stem the tide of the disease, as word got out to surrounding communities about the inherent dangers of the virus. Avoiding dead bodies, urging the ill to seek immediate medical treatment, isolating the sick, and, the simplest act of all, proper hand-washing techniques, were among the protocols issued throughout the region. Even today, Liberians are being cautioned about the lasting dangers of Ebola.
WHO has recently revised their guidelines, urging males who survived the infection to use condoms or abstain from sex for at least six months. The virus has been found to persist in semen, thereby serving as a source of transmission months after a patient recovers.
So the shadow of Ebola persists. Despite recent optimism, researchers will be keeping an eye on Liberia as they turn their attention to her neighbors.
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