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A little over a year ago, on March 25, 2014, Guinea alerted the World Health Organization about a rapidly spreading outbreak of Ebola in the country.
In the following months, the epidemic grew into Ebola's worst on record. More than 10,500 people succumbed to the disease and 24,000 were infected, most of them in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. At the hight of the crisis -- when West Africa recored more than a hundred new cases each week and cities like New York and Madrid feared an outbreak -- Ebola ruled the front pages of media outlets around the world.
One year after Guinea raised the alarm, the number of Ebola cases has dramatically declined and the geographic spread of the disease is significantly limited. Ebola is off the front pages. But has the disease been defeated? Not quite yet.
“The situation has really dramatically improved over the past months,” explains Dr. Inger Damon, director of the division of high-consequence pathogens and pathology at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She notes that since the exponential phase from last summer, when there was a dramatic increase in cases weekly, Liberia is currently at nearly zero infections, and transmission rates in Guinea and Sierra Leone are showing improvement as well. New data released by the WHO on Thursday show that the week leading up to April 5 saw 30 new cases spread across the three countries, the lowest number since May 2014.
Yet for the Ebola outbreak to be fully under control, even that number is too high. The WHO cautioned on Friday that even though the decline in infections seems to be real, the Ebola outbreak still qualifies as an international emergency.
"If we don’t get to zero [cases] we risk a continuation of the outbreaks," says Henry Gray, emergency coordinator at Doctors Without Borders.
To prevent the disease from spreading, experts say, every single patient as well as anybody a patient has been in contact with needs to be known to health workers. Detecting the disease as fast as possible is crucial to limiting the outbreak. Currently, only half of new Ebola patients were known contacts of previous patients.
"Until we have a really clear picture of the outbreak, we can never actually say we’re in control," Gray says.
A woman gets vaccinated on March 10 at a health center in Conakry during the first clinical trials of the VSV-EBOV vaccine against the Ebola virus. (CELLOU BINANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Other challenges remain, including getting medical services in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone back on their feet and restoring communities' trust in the countries' health systems. Informing affected communities about the disease and its transmission continues to be imperative as well, particularly when it comes to the risk of infection during traditional funeral and burial rites.
"The number of cases has declined dramatically, but if everybody takes their eye off the ball we run the risk of Ebola flaring up again and prolonging the outbreak," Gray says.