Shellshocked Liberians brace for worst as Ebola returns, and two more cases confirmed

"No, no, my man. Let's do the Ebola shake because the Devil is back again in our land," said Mamadee Sakor, refusing a friend's handshake.

LIBERIA said Wednesday a teenager who died of Ebola fever had spread the virus to at least two more people, confirming the first outbreak of the tropical disease for months.

Health officials told AFP the infected pair had been in physical contact with the 17-year-old victim before his death on Sunday in a village near the country’s international airport, around an hour’s drive southeast of Monrovia. 

“One hundred and two contacts have been identified, although that number is expected to increase as investigations continue,” the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in its latest report on the epidemic. “At this stage the origin of infection is not known. The case reportedly had no recent history of travel, contact with visitors from affected areas, or funeral attendance.” 

Cestus Tarpeh, a spokesman for the health department where the boy died, confirmed the two new patients had tested positive and said the authorities were awaiting the results of further blood tests on other contacts. 

The news came a day after Health Minister Bernice Dahn announced the first Ebola infection in Liberia for more than three months, warning that it was “likely that we will find additional cases”. Authorities have warned that a herbalist who treated the boy had evaded the authorities and was on the run.  

Nightmarish epidemic

Moses Massaquoi, the head of the Liberian government’s Ebola crisis management department, said 14 conventional health workers among the identified contacts had placed themselves in voluntary quarantine. 

The new outbreak comes with the country still reeling from a nightmarish epidemic which wrecked its health service and economy and left 4,800 Liberians dead.  Before the new cases Liberia had reported its last victim on March 20 and was declared Ebola-free on May 9.

In the marketplaces and at the school gates of downtown Monrovia, Liberians spoke Wednesday of their dread over the return of Ebola.

Buckets of bleach, a ubiquitous symbol of Ebola’s virulence as the epidemic cut a murderous swathe though the country last year, began to reappear outside shops and homes as the capital came to terms with the news that the virus was back.

The devil is back again

“No, no, my man. Let’s do the Ebola shake because the Devil is back again in our land,” said Mamadee Sakor, 43, refusing a friend’s handshake.

Monrovians, a naturally tactile people, substituted their elaborate greetings for a sterile elbow nudge as the bodies of their neighbours began to pile up in the streets from August last year.

As the epidemic began to subside at the end of last year the handshakes made a comeback, but the “Ebola shake” was back as Monrovians met in the streets on Wednesday. 

“I am scared—I am so scared that I don’t even know where to start. I am confused,” said Jeneba Freeman, 45, a stallholder in the capital’s Redlight market.

Liberians were informed on public radio on Tuesday that a 17-year-old boy had become sick with Ebola and died in a village near Roberts International Airport, about an hour’s drive southeast of Monrovia.

Crushing blow 

The country had good reason to believe the nightmare was over, with no new diagnoses since March 20.

The government was deploying epidemiologists on Wednesday in an emergency containment operation to trace the teenage victim’s final few days and ensure anyone with whom he may have had contact was isolated and under observation.

The country’s neighbours Guinea and Sierra Leone are both still battling the outbreak, which has killed more than 11,200 people across west Africa, but the coastal Margibi County where the teenager died is nowhere near either border.

The health ministry said it had no reason to believe he had visited either country and the source of his infection remains a mystery.

Ebola is spread among humans via the bodily fluids of recently deceased victims and people showing symptoms of the tropical fever, which include vomiting, diarrhoea and—in the worst cases—massive internal haemorrhaging and external bleeding.

Experts are speculating that the victim could have been infected by an entirely new variation of the virus from an animal such as a fruit bat.

A more worrying possibility is that clusters of Ebola continue to smoulder under the surface, far from the gaze of local or international health authorities.

Parents’ dilemma 

“We heard on radio that Ebola has turned around to come back to Liberia,” said Samanta Blamo, 55, another stallholder at the Redlight market.

“This is why we are bringing our Ebola buckets. We were still washing our hands but only few buckets were here. Now everybody has one again, just like the way it was in 2014.”

During the months of peak transmission from August to November last year Liberia was the setting for some of the most shocking scenes from the outbreak, by far the worst in history.

The country was reporting more than 300 new cases a week, with uncollected and highly infectious bodies piling up in the streets of Monrovia, a sprawling, chaotic city at the best of times.

Schools remained shut after the summer holidays, unemployment soared as the formal and black-market economies collapsed and clinics closed as staff died and non-emergency healthcare ground to a halt.

Parents found themselves on Wednesday mulling the grim prospect of further disrupting their children’s education or sending them to school as usual—and possibly exposing them to danger, should Ebola re-enter the capital.

Patricia Sleboh, a mother-of-three, told AFP she would rather keep her children from classes than risk “losing them to Ebola”.

“I am waiting to see if the health authorities will give us good reason not to worry. If not, I am stopping my kids from going to school,” she told AFP.

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