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Ebola Case Surfaces in Sierra Leone, Resetting Countdown Clock

The government of Sierra Leone received a mere six-day respite from fighting Ebola, as a new case announced on Sunday resets the countdown clock to declaring the nation Ebola-free. The body of a 67-year-old woman in remote Kambia district has tested positive for the virus.

Chief medical officer Dr. Brima Kargbo confirmed the diagnosis, noting that the new case would restart the clock on declaring Sierra Leone Ebola-free. The last known Ebola patient in the country was released from the hospital last Monday, and Sierra Leone was six days into the Ebola-free countdown. Officials do not appear discouraged, however. OB Sisay, the head of the National Ebola Response Center, urged the nation not to be alarmed at the new case. “We should not despair as we have been expecting this… We need to stay focused and maintain our discipline,” he stated.

It is not yet known where the woman contracted the virus, or whether she spread Ebola to anyone else while still alive. No details of her burial have been published, though the government’s diagnosis indicates Sierra Leone has control over the burial procedure and will prevent unsafe traditional practices.

The Awareness Times, Sierra Leone’s largest national newspaper, reports that there is at least one man suspected of having had dangerous contact with the victim. “A male Ebola survivor from Kagbotho, a nearby village, used to visit her. It is unclear if their relationship was sexual,” the newspaper reports. Ebola survivors can transfer the disease for months after having recovered. Awareness Times adds the detail that Tonko Limba is a remote village, and praises President Ernest Koroma and “some of the country’s top opposition politicians” for agreeing to extend funding for Ebola prevention programs, which continued to operate even in remote villages following the restart of the Ebola-free countdown clock.

Before the latest case, Sierra Leone reported that the previous Ebola case had also been in the nation’s north, in the district of Bombali. That survivor, a 35-year-old woman, was released from the hospital last week. “We still must… maintain the momentum and vigilance to spot any unexpected case,” said Jose Hulsenbek, Doctors Without Borders coordinator, at the time of her release. While many were hopeful she would be the last case, experts warned it was likely there would be more. Hulsenbek noted that Guinea, also still fighting the virus, had reported three new cases in the past week, “and we know well that the virus has no borders.” Sierra Leone shares its northern border with Guinea.

Sierra Leone has struggled the most to contain the disease, however. In June, an unprecedented spike in cases alarmed officials, with 31 new cases in both Sierra Leone and Guinea. The next month, Sierra Leone quarantined 500 people in a village that had previously been declared Ebola-free. Recidivism has been a problem, as villages where residents believed the outbreak to be over have reverted to unsafe burial practices and abandoned extra precautions.

Ebola has also triggered other health problems in Sierra Leone as well. Sierra Leone’s students begin school this week, returning with established Ebola precaution practices in use. Some communities saw a rise this summer of other diseases, however, such as polio and measles. Mothers have refused vaccinations for fear that Western medical professionals may give their children Ebola.

Of the three majorly Ebola-affected nations, Liberia has been the most successful in combating the disease, though it has also experienced the greatest number of cases. Liberia is close to being declared Ebola-free once again, following a mystery case in May that stopped their countdown in its tracks. As the focus shifts away from disease prevention and treatment, Liberian groups are demanding accountability from their government, seeking details on how funds designated to the fight against Ebola were used.

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