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WHO ups vaccinations after Ebola epidemic declared over

The WHO has declared the Ebola emergency over. But still about 800 people in contact with those infected with the virus in Guinea have been given an experimental vaccine to try and halt a return of the deadly disease.

Belgian minister Alexander De Croo (center left) at a 'Doctors without borders' ebola treatment center in Guinea

Belgian minister Alexander De Croo (center left) at a 'Doctors without borders' ebola treatment center in Guinea

The World Health Organization (WHO) said this week that West Africa's Ebola outbreak - which began in Guinea in late 2013 and caused an unprecedented 20-month-long epidemic killing 11,300 people - is no longer a threat to international public health.

Guinea was declared free of Ebola

in late December, but eight cases have been reported since late February with at least seven of the patients having died. The WHO said six of the dead were from three generations of the same extended family.

The United Nations health agency's office in Guinea said more than 1,000 contacts of the eight latest Ebola cases have been identified and are under medical observation.

Of the 800 people that have been vaccinated over the past week, 182 are considered to be high-risk contacts.

Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization

Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization

Trial and error

During the epidemic, a total of 13 Ebola vaccine candidates - including different combinations of shots - were tested in early- and mid-stage clinical trials.

Merck's VSV-EBOV vaccine was chosen, having been shown in a clinical trial last year to be highly effective in preventing Ebola infection.

The experimental vaccine, which was given to people over the past week, was found to be effective in preventing Ebola infection in a trial in Guinea, and has also been used in Sierra Leone, the WHO said.

The so-called ring vaccination strategy is two-tiered, with vaccinations given not only to people who have come into contact with others suffering from Ebola, but also to those people's friends and family.

The "ring vaccination" strategy involves swiftly vaccinating anyone who has come into contact with a person infected with Ebola, as well as contacts of theirs.

Job still not finished

"On March 30, there are nine registered cases and seven deaths: three suspected and four confirmed," said Fode Tass Sylla, spokesman for Guinea's Ebola response unit.

Two more people - one suspected case and one confirmed - were receiving treatment at a dedicated Ebola facility in southern Guinea, not far from the Liberian border, Sylla said.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota in the United States and a co-author of the report, cautioned the global health officials against believing the progress made had "solved the problem of Ebola."

"The path forward is not quite so simple, and many unresolved challenges and questions remain," he said.

jbh/kms (dpa, Reuters, AFP)

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