A carer for a woman who died of Ebola in Sierra Leone has now been infected with the virus, heightening fears of a fresh flare-up just days after West Africa was declared officially free of the disease.
The second case to be identified in less than a week is a 38-year-old woman who had helped to care for last week’s victim, Mariatu Jalloh, health ministry spokesman Sidi Yahyah Tunis said according to a report by Reuters news agency.
WHO on Thursday also confirmed the second Ebola case in Sierra Leone, saying new patient was Jalloh’s aunt.
The 38-year-old woman “was a primary caregiver during the young woman’s illness,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told the AFP news agency in an email, adding that she had developed symptoms of the deadly virus on Wednesday while she was being monitored at a quarantine facility.
“The patient is being treated now,” Jasarevic said.
Jalloh, a 22-year-old student who died from the disease on January 12, tested positive for Ebola after her death, which marked a further setback in efforts to end a two-year epidemic that has killed more than 11,300 people across West Africa.
The new cases come as reports emerge that fear and suspicion in the country, which had been declared Ebola-free in November, were hampering attempts to stop the spread of the virus.
According to Reuters, internal health reports showed that at least 50 people linked to Jalloh – who were potentially exposed to the virus – have gone missing.
At least a dozen of them are considered at high risk of infection.
“Community very uncooperative and unwilling to direct us to the missing contacts”, one of the health reports said.
They also referred to “great resistance” to a programme to vaccinate locals who were potentially exposed to the virus in the Northern Province, a remote area near the Guinean border where Jalloh had travelled before falling ill.
Health sources familiar with the reports, who asked for anonymity, told Reuters that the number of total contacts had increased to more than 200 people, from 109 quarantined last week.
The reports also showed that suspicion towards health officials, one of the aggravating factors in the disease’s early spread nearly two years ago, was still obstructing attempts to end the epidemic.
Some observers say such incredulity is understandable given the apparent failure of local officials to follow basic health protocols at the height of the outbreak.
Sierra Leone was supposed to be in a 90-day period of “heightened surveillance”, but Jalloh was examined by an official without protective clothing.
The World Health Organization had declared the West African region Ebola-free on January 15, but stressed the need for vigilance in the months to come.
“While this is an important milestone and a very important step forward, we have to say that the job is still not done,” Rick Brennan, WHO director of emergency risk assessment and humanitarian response, said at the time.
“That’s because there is still ongoing risk of re-emergence of the disease because of persistence of the virus in a proportion of survivors.”
In Sierra Leone alone, about 4,000 people have died of Ebola.
This is not the first time that new cases emerge after a country is officially declared Ebola free. In May, two new Ebola cases were diagnosed in neighbouring Liberia after it was declared free of the virus.