The World Health Organisation confirmed Friday a new death from Ebola in Sierra Leone just a day after West Africa celebrated the end of an outbreak which killed 11,000 people.
A 22-year-old woman was taken ill near the Guinean border on Thursday last week and died on Tuesday, local health officials said as the WHO issued a statement from Geneva confirming she was killed by Ebola.
The official said the woman “died at home” but did not say why she had been released from the hospital in Magburaka, the capital of the northern Tonkolili district.
“The swab test on the victim after her death was done three times and all proved positive,” Langoba Kelly of Sierra Leone’s office of national security told reporters in Freetown, appealing for calm.
Kelly said investigators were fanning out across Tonkolili to track down anyone who may have had contact with the victim and family members had been placed in isolation.
The WHO had said Thursday a two-year Ebola outbreak that killed 11,315 people and triggered a global health alert was over, with Liberia the last country to get the all-clear.
However, the organisation also warned there could be “possible flare-ups” of the disease.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon cautioned that the region could expect sporadic cases in the coming year but added “we also expect the potential and frequency of those flare-ups to decrease over time”.
Residents in Magburaka, a town of around 40,000 people, voiced shock and distress over the announcement.
“It was not expected and came at a time when we had thought that the virus is nowhere within our land,” groundnut farmer Allieu Kamara told AFP.
“We are really worried that death has resulted from the case but we are hopeful that the huge presence of the various key players will bring back confidence to all of us.”
The deadliest outbreak in the history of the feared tropical virus wrecked the economies and health systems of the three worst-hit West African nations after it emerged in southern Guinea in December 2013.
Sierra Leone was declared free of Ebola transmission on November 7 last year and Guinea on December 29.
The agency said the 42-day countdown to Sierra Leone being declared free of transmission once more would begin from the date of the latest victim’s burial if no more cases were uncovered.
Meanwhile investigators are likely to focus on whether she had sexual contact with an Ebola survivor, only recently recognised as a possible source of infection, and if she crossed the border to Guinea in the days before becoming sick.
Rumours have circulated in Sierra Leone media over the resumption of the practice of eating bush meat, banned because bats and other jungle-dwelling mammals are thought to be natural reservoirs for the Ebola virus.
But an associate professor of virology at the University of Queensland, Ian Mackay, said the practice had been in existence long before the outbreak and a relaxation of hygiene precautions like handwashing was more of a worry.
“That seems to have dropped down a little bit. The WHO was mentioning that yesterday, that handwashing has just become just a little bit more lax and that really needs to pick up to help combat the return of this and other infections,” he told Britain’s BBC Five Live radio station.
At its peak, it devastated Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with bodies piling up in the streets and overwhelmed hospitals recording hundreds of new cases a week.
Liberia, the country worst hit by the outbreak with 4,800 deaths, discharged its last two patients from hospital – the father and younger brother of a 15-year-old victim – on December 3, 2015.
Africa’s oldest republic was the last country still afflicted by the outbreak that infected almost 29,000 people and claimed 11,315 lives, according to official data.
The real toll is suspected to be much higher, with many Ebola deaths believed to have gone unreported.
Ebola causes severe fever and muscle pain, weakness, vomiting and diarrhoea. In many cases it shuts down organs and causes unstoppable internal bleeding. Patients often succumb within days.
From a Guinean infant who was the first victim, the epidemic quickly spread into neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone, notching up more deaths than all other Ebola outbreaks combined.
Liberia was first to be declared free of human-to-human Ebola transmission in May, only to see the virus resurface six weeks later.
It was officially credited with beating the epidemic for a second time in September before another small cluster of cases emerged.