A look back at Ebola 2015; it may have changed West Africa forever – some of it breaks the heart

Many Liberians are too now afraid to enter medical school. In Sierra Leone, the maternity mortality rate could increase by up to 74%!

NEARLY years after the first case of the deadly vrius Ebola was detected in West Africa, Guinea, the country where the outbreak began, was finally been declared free of the disease on December 29, 2015 by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The announcement capped a year that was a roller coaster ride for West Africa, with Ebola coming and going and coming and going, and then coming once again.

But now, after nearly two years battling the deadly virus, all of the affected region finally seems to be Ebola-free.

None of the three countries most affected – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – has had an active case since mid-November.

Experts warn that there will likely be a re-emergence of Ebola at some point, but governments, health workers, communities and aid agencies all say they are now better prepared to stop any new flare-ups.

The region entered 2016 Ebola-free, but the impact of the outbreak is still being felt by many.

More than 28,600 people were infected and 11,315 died. Economic losses totalled an estimated $1.6 billion in 2015 alone

Economic losses totalled an estimated $1.6 billion in 2015 alone, according to the World Bank. Kids finally returned to school toward the end of year after months of disrupted classes, but the long-term impact on children and education won’t be known for years to come.

And, despite waning stigma, not all survivors or Ebola workers have been accepted back into their communities.

Here’s a look back at the ups and downs of the outbreak from as far back as March 2014, and the defining moments and changes that you might have missed.

THE GOOD

Before the Ebola outbreak, many Guineans used to rely solely on local medicine men or “féticheurs” to treat their various ailments and illnesses. But as local communities watched both their people and traditional healers die from Ebola – their powers apparently not strong enough to combat the virus – more and more of the sick began taking the advice of health workers and seeking out care from licensed doctors and nurses. 

The virus ended the sole reliance on local medicine men, and shifted many to taking the advice of health workers

For a long time after the outbreak began, families were forbidden from holding traditional funerals, due to fears the events would help spread the virus. They thought they’d never be able to give their loved ones a proper goodbye. But as more and more communities were declared Ebola-free this year, and public gatherings resumed, many finally got that chance.

A great number of Ebola survivors, particularly early on in the outbreak, lost their jobs, were excluded from community events, and were often even shunned by their own families. But thanks to large-scale education campaigns, many are now being welcomed back home. 

THE BAD

West Africa is known for its friendly, personal interactions – even among strangers. But Ebola, which is transmitted through bodily contact, changed all that. Too afraid to get too close to anyone, many people gave up their most common practice: the handshake.

Guinea’s Gueckedou region, where the outbreak began, was declared Ebola-free in January 2015. But months later, the extent of the damage was only just starting to be realised.

Things in Sierra Leone and Liberia were looking up mid-year: unemployment was down for the first time since the outbreak began and schools had reopened after nine months of closure. But many families said they still didn’t have enough to eat and malnutrition rates among children under the age of five remained high. 

West Africa is known for its friendly, personal interactions – even among strangers. But Ebola changed all that.

Just 10% of students initially returned to class, according to Save the Children. Many were too afraid; others had already turned to selling goods on the street, in order to support their families. 

THE UGLY

Some 17,000 people are believed to have survived Ebola in West Africa. But their ordeal is far from over. More than half say they are suffering from debilitating joint pain, headaches, and fatigue, and at least 25% have experienced some degree of change in vision, with many now close to being blind, according to WHO. Their healthcare options remain limited. 

More than 20,000 Liberians risked their lives to bury the dead during the Ebola outbreak. Many left their former jobs to help contain the virus. Others simply volunteered their time. Now, due to ongoing stigma, they are unable to find new work. 

Months after the Ebola has ended, some volunteers who risked their lives to help when most people were too afraid, are still being shunned.

Burial workers in Sierra Leone faced a similar fate: months after the last Ebola case was found, volunteers were still being shunned by their families and communities.

Nearly 6,000 children in Liberia lost either one or both parents to Ebola. While many found loving homes with friends, family or neighbors, not all were so lucky.

Liberia was in dire need of doctors and nurses before the Ebola outbreak began. Then, more than 200 health workers died from Ebola. 

Nearly 6,000 children in Liberia lost either one or both parents to Ebola. In Sierra Leone, more than 220 health workers died 

Now, at a time when the country needs new staff at clinics more than ever, many Liberians say they are too afraid to enter medicine. In Sierra Leone, where more than 220 health workers died from Ebola, many worry about the impact on pregnant women. 

The World Bank has warned that the country’s maternity mortality rate could increase by up to 74% because of the Ebola crisis.

The WHO has vowed to reform following widespread criticism of its delayed and “inadequate” response to the Ebola outbreak. WHO’s newly appointed regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, says the organisation has learnt lessons and become stronger after making changes, but health experts say there is still a long way to go.

-IRIN

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