The UN health agency said on Saturday Ebola-ravaged Sierra Leone had beaten an 18-month outbreak that killed almost 4,000 of its people and plunged the economy into severe recession.
The former British colony recorded around half of the cases in an epidemic that has infected 28,600 people across the three hardest-hit west African nations and claimed 11,300 lives since December 2013.
Experts agree that the real death toll is almost certainly significantly higher than the official data, which has been skewed by the under-reporting of deaths in many probable Ebola cases.
The announcement represents a hugely significant milestone in UN-backed efforts to wipe out Ebola, leaving neighbouring Guinea as the only country still registering cases.
With just a handful of cases a week arising in that country in recent months, health campaigners are hopeful the battle with history’s worst outbreak is almost won.
Save the Children has sounded the alarm however over the long-term impact on 1.8 million children in Sierra Leone who missed nine months of school, pointing to a “significant spike in adolescent pregnancies”.
The crisis took a devastating toll on primary health services and immunisation programmes, with the deaths of 221 medical staff — five percent of frontline doctors and seven percent of nurses and midwives.
A country is considered free of human-to-human transmission once two 21-day incubation periods have passed since the last known case tested negative for a second time.
– ‘No elaborate celebration’ –
After some false starts, Sierra Leone’s countdown finally began on September 25, three weeks after the WHO had declared neighbouring Liberia Ebola-free following 4,800 deaths there.
Guinea, where around 2,500 died, still has a handful of cases and Sierra Leone has announced heightened security and health screening at their shared border.
Palo Conteh, the head of Sierra Leone’s Ebola response, had indicated that there were no plans for “an elaborate celebration” of the country’s Ebola-free status.
But a large crowd, numbering in the thousands according to witnesses, took to the streets late Friday to light candles, wave banners, sing and dance in an impromptu celebration centred around the iconic cotton tree in the downtown area.
After the WHO delivered its formal declaration President Ernest Bai Koroma was expected to voice his gratitude to aid agencies, healthcare professionals and other key workers gathered at the ceremony.
“Thank God it is all over and we now live in peace,” said Mamie Kabia, 25, a member of one of the expert teams burying highly infectious bodies around the clock at the height of the crisis.
The epidemic was first reported in Sierra Leone 18 months ago, when a woman tested positive after contracting the virus at the funeral of a healer who had been treating Ebola patients on the Guinea border.
– ‘I died several times’ –
At the peak of the outbreak in 2014, Sierra Leone and its neighbours were reporting hundreds of new cases a week, with social order on the brink of collapse.
While the primary cost of the outbreak has been in human life, the crisis has also wiped out development gains in Sierra Leone, which was devastated by 11 years of civil war ending in 2002.
The World Bank estimates that Sierra Leone will lose at least $1.4 billion in forgone economic growth in 2015 as a result, leading to an “unprecedented” GDP contraction of more than 20 percent.
Across the country, Ebola workers recounted their own personal horror stories.
“I hated the smell of chlorine. They say you only die once, but I died several times. But it is good it is now over,” ambulance driver Ferenka Koroma told AFP.