There may be some good news coming from the Ebola-stricken countries of West Africa — the number of new cases is way down and some schools have even re-opened — but the crisis is far from over.
Dr. Oliver Johnson, who leads the Kings Sierra Leone Partnership in Freetown — a collaboration with the British government — says Ebola is still active and claiming new victims all the time. “We’re not out of the woods yet," he says. "We still have four or five cases diagnosed a day — sometimes in Freetown — so we are very mindful we have to keep the pressure up."
Johnson has seen the impact of the international effort at his own hospital in Freetown, a major Ebola treatment center. “We used to have queues outside the hospital and every bed was full," he remembers. “We used to have seven or eight new patients a day. Now it is two or three patients a week. ... But this trend [of improvement] isn’t inevitable. And until we get to zero, things aren’t over.”
Courtesy of Tulip Mazumdar
Public attitudes about the disease have also changed, according to Tulip Mazumdar, a global health correspondent for the BBC who traveled to West Africa several times over the past year to cover the Ebola crisis. She remembers arriving in a village in Guinea last summer where residents were hostile to health workers — even as the epidemic was in full swing.
"Some health workers had actually been attacked," Mazumdar says. "I remember going in there and people were, understandably, utterly terrified. They didn't understand this thing. They've had several members of that community die in this very harrowing way. They didn't know what was happening."
But as time went on, she says, people’s understanding of the epidemic changed. “I went to Freetown a couple of months later. The buckets of chlorine were outside every public building; we had our temperatures checked five to six times a day; there were Ebola posters everywhere telling people to avoid body contact because that’s how it’s spread," Mazumdar says.
And while the number of cases may be coming down, Mazumdar, like Johnson, cautions that Ebola will require continued vigilance on the part of health workers as well as journalists. “This is far from over," she says, "and as it continues in Sierra Leone [and] Guinea, the rest of [the] West African countries and, indeed, the world remain at risk.”