Woman's Ebola death a setback for Sierra Leone after all-clear
A woman who died this week in Sierra Leone tested positive for Ebola, officials said, in a setback for the region the day after the World Health Organisation had declared the epidemic over.
The WHO had warned on Thursday that new Ebola cases were possible even after virus transmission was halted in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - the three west African nations hardest hit by the epidemic that left more than 11,300 people dead.
Already 10 other flare-ups have taken place in areas where virus transmission was thought to have ended, raising new questions about WHO procedures in assessing whether an epidemic is over.
The global health body said Sierra Leone's government was moving rapidly to contain the new threat, but it was not immediately clear how the 22-year-old woman who died contracted Ebola. All known transmission chains in that country had been halted in November.
Francis Langoba Kellie, a spokesman for Sierra Leone's Office of National Security, said the woman had come from the country's Northern Kambia district and had gone to the Northern Tonkolili district for medical care.
Authorities are tracing her contacts and have dispatched teams to the area to investigate how she might have contracted the virus and if she might have infected others. Certain areas will be quarantined, he said.
The WHO declared the latest Ebola outbreak over in Liberia on Thursday after no new cases emerged there during a 42-day waiting period. That benchmark had already been met in Guinea and Sierra Leone.
"Our level of preparedness and response capabilities are very high and there is no cause for concern," said Mr Kellie. "We encourage the public to continue to practise the hygiene regulations which were in force during the period while Ebola was raging and the emergency regulations are still in force."
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said: "This really reflects what we have been saying yesterday ... that there is a risk, and this outbreak is in a critical phase right now, where we are moving from case management to management of risk."
Ebola is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of people who are sick or the bodies of the dead.
The WHO says flare-up cases, such as in Liberia, "are likely the result of the virus persisting in survivors even after recovery". Of particular concern is that Ebola can stay in the semen of some male survivors up to a year later.
The organisation said Ebola can "in rare instances, be transmitted to intimate partners".
The WHO declares Ebola transmission over when a country goes through two incubation periods - 21 days each - without a new case emerging. Countries are then placed on a 90-day heightened surveillance. Sierra Leone was first declared Ebola-free on November 7, after nearly 4,000 people had died from the virus.