Sierra Leone’s last known Ebola patient has been released from hospital, medical officials said on Monday, allowing authorities to begin a six-week countdown before declaring the West African country free of the virus once more.
Thirty-eight-year-old Memunatu Kalokoh was discharged on Friday, said Col. Sahr Foday, the head of the Sierra Leone Army Medical Unit where she was admitted.
Kalokoh is the aunt of Mariatu Jalloh, the 21-year-old student who died of the virus last month in the same week that the World Health Organization declared the region Ebola-free. The case triggered a country-wide hunt for people who may have come into contact with her. Kalokoh nursed Jalloh when she was sick.
Health ministry spokesman Sidi Yahyah Tunis said this meant the country had again started the 42-day countdown after which the outbreak will be declared over if there are no new cases. This represents twice the length of the virus’s incubation period – the time elapsed between transmission of the disease and the appearance of symptoms.
Even after that, however, the WHO said cases like this one are likely to re-emerge as efforts continue to stamp out the virus that killed more than 11,300 people in two years, mostly in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
Sierra Leone was first declared free of Ebola in November before Jalloh’s case emerged and raised fears of a new upsurge. Health experts expressed concern that many of the routine procedures established to contain the virus were not carried out in her case.
Dozens of people who may have come into contact with Jalloh before she died remain missing, and the health ministry has urged them to come forward. That effort has been hampered by fear and suspicion in local communities.
“There will be no punitive action against them and we will treat them if they are sick,” Tunis said.