It's Too Early to Declare Victory Over Ebola

07/10/2015 08:15 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2016
Health workers wash their hands after taking a blood specimen from a child to test for the Ebola virus in an area where a 17-
Health workers wash their hands after taking a blood specimen from a child to test for the Ebola virus in an area where a 17-year old boy died from the virus on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, Tuesday, June 30, 2015. Liberian authorities on Tuesday quarantined the area where the corpse of the boy was found, sparking fears this West African country could face another outbreak of the disease nearly two months after being declared Ebola-free. (AP Photo/ Abbas Dulleh)

On May 9, Liberia was declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization (WHO) after 14 long months battling against the disease. With that declaration came predictions that neighboring Sierra Leone may see the end of the epidemic as well.

But nearly two months later, Liberia is back to facing the devastating disease after three new cases were registered last week -- the chain of transmission of this new case is still unknown.

Have we declared victory too soon?

The resurgence of Ebola in Liberia is a sharp reminder that all efforts to fight the epidemic must remain high and that the international community should continue to be mobilized.

This also shows that the priority must be to get to zero new cases in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, while preventing the resurgence of the virus in areas where new infections have not been registered for 42 days. If this target is not reached, any recovery initiative will be undermined.

With more than 27,000 people infected and more than 11,200 deaths -- as of June 30, 2015 -- the ongoing Ebola epidemic in West Africa is the worst ever in history.

Beyond the macabre statistics, the epidemic has had devastating economic and social consequences in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The three countries are among the poorest in the world and the international community has a duty to support them to ensure that the economic progress they have made in recent years are not compromised. Donors must ensure that substantial funding is allocated to health and education, two sectors of great importance for the future of the three nations' children.

Children of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea deserve particular attention and need vast support to be able to recover from a long crisis. We cannot forget them.

The health systems in all three countries, which were already weak before Ebola, have been overwhelmed by the epidemic, with hospitals that appeared increasingly, in the eyes of the population, places where people go to die.

Ebola has left thousands of children with limited access to basic health care, and prevented pregnant women from getting pre-and post-natal consultations because the resources and medical staff have been reoriented to fight against the epidemic.

It is heartbreaking to hear of stories such as that of Maurice*, an 11 year old boy, living in a small village in the forest region of Guinea. He has been confined to his bed for months and no one knows if he will be able to walk normally again and play with his friends. Maurice broke his back and slashed his thigh after falling off a tree. His parents did not want to take him to the clinic for fear of Ebola, and it nearly caused him to lose his leg to an amputation after the wound got seriously infected. The international community must help restore faith in health systems.

And it is not just the health systems that are in shambles. We cannot forget about the millions of Liberian, Sierra Leonean and Guinean children who lost the equivalent of one school year because their schools had been closed to limit the spread of the virus.

Education is a fundamental right for children and the key to a stronger future. Governments have the responsibility to ensure that all children can return to normal and safe schooling.

The New York conference today is a crucial moment to mobilize $8 billion requested by Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to finance their recovery plans. Donors must hear their appeal and help them meet this enormous challenge ahead in order not to compromise the future of a whole generation.

The world was slow to respond to the epidemic. We must not make the same mistake in this delicate phase when considerable efforts are still needed to eradicate Ebola and launch the recovery process. In this regard, we hope that the reform initiatives currently underway will follow the recommendations of the final report of the Ebola Interim Panel of Experts, released just this week. Necessary improvements must be made in the way WHO and the wider humanitarian community deliver timely and quality assistance to communities in need.

The international community must help Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to rebuild and strengthen health systems so they can ensure free access to basic health care while improving care for diseases that were neglected because of Ebola.

We need more investment in education for schools to play their full role of protective environment for children. Governments must do everything possible to facilitate access of all children to school in the three countries, which have the lowest rates of school attendance in the world.

The number of cases is dropping, bringing us closer to the end of the battle all the while driving the media and the international community's attention away -- with a false sense of accomplishment.

The reappearance of the virus in Liberia raises concerns that this could be a fatal mistake.