By DIONNE SEARCEY
NOV. 17, 2015
DAKAR, Senegal — The worst Ebola outbreak in history took a big step toward ending on Tuesday when Guinea, the only nation where the virus had been lingering, began its official countdown to being declared free of the disease.
The countdown began after a 3-week-old girl, Nubia Soumah, the last known patient in active treatment in the world, tested negative for the
virus twice in a row.
Dozens of people in Guinea are still being monitored to see if they develop symptoms of the virus. But if no further cases emerge in Guinea over the next 42 days, the equivalent of two incubation periods for the virus, the nation will be declared officially free of Ebola, nearly two years after the epidemic began in the country’s forest region.
Nubia contracted the virus from her mother, an Ebola victim who died after giving birth. For several days, the baby has been the sole patient at a Doctors Without Borders facility in Conakry, the capital. She will be closely monitored at the facility for follow-up care because of her fragile age.
“She could be the last patient of this epidemic,” said Laurence Sailly, a Doctors Without Borders emergency coordinator for Ebola in Guinea.
Guinea has struggled to stamp out the virus even as Liberia and Sierra Leone — each of which had many more cases and deaths — have been declared free of Ebola. The outbreak has killed more than 11,300 people, almost all of them in those three West African nations.
In Guinea, the latest chain of transmission started in Conakry, where a child contracted Ebola and was taken back to her rural village for treatment by a traditional healer, exposing a number of people to the virus across a small cluster of villages. One family was hit particularly hard, that of Seydouba Soumah. He lost two wives, and several of his children were infected. Nubia is his youngest daughter.
Some Soumah family members had been taken to the Doctors Without Borders treatment center for observation, a quarantine of sorts. But they did not contract Ebola, and after the incubation period passed late last week, they were released. Their return home was met with great fanfare, as they were accompanied by Prime Minister Mohamed Said Fofana.
“We had a big celebration,” said Dr. Boubacar Diallo, the World Health Organization physician in charge of tracking down contacts of victims.
The coming days in Guinea will be stressful for the country, which awaits a declaration of being Ebola-free so it can begin to repair the damage the virus has done to its economy and society.
Aid workers are still monitoring anyone who may have come in contact with Ebola victims in the villages. One woman who fled last month after being in close contact with a patient has not been found, Dr. Diallo said.
Guinea and other countries also run the risk of new cases generated from survivors who still harbor the virus in semen or body tissues.
A Scottish nurse became critically ill last month after having recovered from Ebola, which she contracted doing charity work in Sierra Leone nearly a year ago. She has recovered again and was released last week from a specialized infectious disease treatment center in London, but her health is being closely monitored.
Doctors Without Borders officials in Guinea said Nubia’s case was an important medical milestone: She became the only baby born to an infected mother known to have survived Ebola.
Infants and children who have contracted Ebola during this outbreak have fared the worst of any age group, according to the W.H.O.
Health care officials from around the world have been closely tracking Nubia’s care, checking in frequently with doctors in Conakry.
“She’s broken all records, this little girl,” said Dr. Margaret Harris, a W.H.O. spokeswoman. “She is really something special.”
Nubia has spent her life so far inside a treatment center where she was born, being coddled only by workers suited in head-to-toe protective gear. Two weeks ago, an aunt, Fatoumata Cisse, became her first family member allowed to view her at the treatment center.
“You O.K.?” cooed Ms. Cisse, from several feet away, blocked off by two sets of makeshift fencing to prevent any spread of infection. Nubia slept through the viewing.