On the early morning of the 23rd March 2014, the world woke up to the breaking news of an Ebola outbreak in Guinea. However, as early as December 2013, Guinea’s local media had been reporting unexplained deaths in the south of the country. It was only when bodies had started piling up that the Guinean authorities decided to take blood samples for testing at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The result was a bombshell: the mysterious deaths were caused by the Ebola virus.
Subsequent investigations identified a potential source of the outbreak. In December 2013, Emile Ouamouno, a two-year old toddler from the village of Meliandou in the Gueckedou region, had been bitten by a bat while playing under a baobab. He had developed a high fever and vomiting and died two days later. Emile was declared the first Ebola victim. Following that announcement, Guinea’s authorities set up a commission to fight the disease. In August 2014, they reassured the World Health Organisation (WHO) of controlling the situation.
However, Ebola came back killing thousands in southern Guinea and neighbouring Liberia and Sierra-Leone. That was facilitated by the absence of border controls, with Gueckedou, town in Guinea, holding traditional Sunday markets attracting visitors from Liberia. Constant and uncontrolled movements of people allowed the virus reaching Liberia, which became a new epicentre of the disease. The Liberian hospitals became so overwhelmed that the infected were dying right at hospital gates, with bodies lying around on the streets of the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
That prompted WHO to declare an unprecedented health crisis in West Africa. While TV cameras were focused on the region, Guinea, Sierra-Leone and Liberia found themselves isolated by travel restrictions to other part of the world. At the same time, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which had already been present in the region, called on voluntary help, and the United Nations created its Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) in September 2014.
The European Union meeting in Brussels in November 2014 recommended isolating Ebola, as opposed to the countries affected. That was when the presidents of the three worst hit countries started using that as a slogan in their campaigns. A fundraising campaign was launched, and logistics were put in place to enable building treatment centres. The WHO estimated 10,000 new Ebola cases per week by December 2014 while admitting to responding to the epidemic too slowly. The mobilisation of resources seemed sufficient to tackle the virus.
Before that campaign and the increased media attention, for some countries, including Great Britain, Guinea had been little known for historical reasons, as illustrated by the following first-hand account: “I remember an Australian asking me about my origins. When I mentioned Guinea, his first reaction was the word Ebola. I felt sad that my beloved country had become known by many through the blood tinted lenses of that horrible disease. However, I was not ashamed to talk about it: I know that, while discussing Ebola, you can make people understand that there is much more to Guinea. You can also receive help, who knows.”
“When I was given the opportunity to participate in a radio drama recording, I did not think twice. BBC Media Action was producing a mini-drama, “Mr Plan-Plan and The Pepo-oh" for Guinea, Sierra-Leone and Liberia to help fight Ebola. I was proud to be part of such a noble campaign, it was an honour. With my other Guinean friends, we spent two days recording with the producers and technicians. Those moments were memorable: we had to find the right tone and style to get the message across. It was emotional while trying to promote messages that may have saved lives through the medium of radio. The three different language versions of the mini-drama were offered to national and local radio stations across the three countries in order to increase the impact of the Ebola prevention campaign already run by local authorities and the media.”
Meanwhile, the number of Ebola victims was rising. Despite travel restrictions and other precautions in place, Ebola had being spreading further by air travellers and people crossing into the neighbouring countries: Senegal, Spain and the UK all registered one cured case; United States – one cured case and one death; Mali had 8 cases and 6 deaths; and Nigeria - 20 cases and 8 deaths. The solution was not to isolate the countries, but to provide the necessary help to beat the disease.
During the twelve months since March 2014, Ebola had caused more damage than initially thought. It had broken some local traditions. For example, for the first time in Liberian history, bodies were cremated. It also gave rise to the absurd rumours and political conspiracies that the West had introduced the virus in order to wipe out the population of that part of Africa for demographic reasons.
All of that contributed to negligence and resistance to change, and local communities carried on unsafe burials despite the warnings. Moreover, there were cases of Ebola campaigners being attacked. In Womey, Guinea, journalists, authorities and health workers were killed amid fears they were bringing the virus to the village.
One year on, the fight with Ebola is still on. Liberia, which was hoping to be declared Ebola-free after 49 days without registering any new cases, has had a setback with a new case of a 44-year old woman in Monrovia. Sierra-Leone has ordered a lockdown of about two million people. At the same time, in some parts of Guinea, the resistance to the Ebola campaign has not stopped and a 42 days ‘health emergency’ has been called by the President Alpha Conde in the west and south-west of the country.
However, there is strong hope that the epidemic is finally receding, and this horrible episode in the life of West Africans is finally coming to an end. According to the latest statistics released on the 26 March 2015, 24,927 combined, probable and suspected cases were reported, with 10,338 deaths and 16.600 orphans. The WHO has called for a comprehensive vaccination campaign following the first trials in Guinea recently. West Africa needs a new deep breath, a new start to prevent such an epidemic happening again.