More than seven weeks after Liberia was declared free of Ebola, a young man was found dead of the disease on Sunday, according to the country’s deputy health minister.
Now authorities are trying to determine how many people the 17-year-old boy in Nidonwin had contact with during the week he was sick and potentially infectious with Ebola. His mother, father and siblings are already under quarantine in their home, said Tolbert Nyenswah, who heads up Liberia’s Ebola response.
“There is no need for panic. There is no need for fear. We have it under control,” Nyenswah said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has a rapid response team on the ground “investigating the circumstances around the case,” said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the agency.
“It’s possible we might see other cases, and we’re moving as quickly as possible to identify all the contacts to make sure they’re carefully monitored,” he said.
It’s not clear how the teenager contracted the disease, given that the World Health Organization declared Liberia free of Ebola on May 9. Nyenswah said it’s not known if he’d recently traveled to Guinea or Sierra Leone, where there are still cases of the disease.
The young man, who lived near the Liberian airport, started showing signs of Ebola on June 21, Nyenswah said. At some point between June 21 and his death on June 28, he went to a clinic and was diagnosed with malaria.
The clinic was likely not immediately suspicious of Ebola because the disease has not been circulating in the country for more than seven weeks, and the symptoms of Ebola can be very similar to other diseases, said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the World Health Organization.
The teenager’s parents called the national Ebola hotline the day their son died, and a “safe burial team,” whose members wear full protective gear and are trained to handle bodies infected with Ebola, buried him that day, Nyenswah said.
The quick burial is a good sign, Jasarevic said.
“Although this is not the situation we were hoping for, this incident shows that the alert system is working,” the WHO spokesman said.
He added that the WHO has a team in Liberia supporting the Ministry of Health, and “there is the capacity to quickly identify, isolate, treat and track every contact and stop further the spread of the disease.”
When asked about the week that the young man was potentially infectious with Ebola but wasn’t isolated, Jasarevic said “the health ministry knows more about the details of that than I do.”
Nyenswah said the health ministry expects to have a list of the young man’s contacts by the end of the day Tuesday.
“This is a setback, but we have the capacity to move ahead and contain this,” he said.