The World Health Organization (WHO) marked a grim milestone Thursday in the biggest-ever Ebola outbreak, estimating that the virus had killed more than 10,000 people, mostly in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
WHO declared Ebola an international health emergency in August, but critics have slammed the agency for waiting until there were nearly 1,000 deaths to do so. WHO recently announced it was forming an independent expert panel to assess its response.
Liberia, once the hardest-hit country in the Ebola outbreak, released its last Ebola patient on March 5. It has now begun a 42-day countdown and if no new cases are found in that period, it will be declared Ebola-free according to WHO standards.
To mark the epidemic's downturn, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf re-opened the country's borders with neighboring countries. Ambulances in Liberia have also been dispatched to help stop Ebola in Sierra Leone and the government recently bought a 25-acre plot of land outside the capital to bury Ebola victims.
Both Guinea and Sierra Leone are still reporting dozens of new cases every week and the number of Ebola deaths taking place outside of hospitals remains high, suggesting that people are wary of seeking help or are hiding cases.
The outbreak has had one silver lining — it has sped up the development of Ebola vaccines and treatments, something researchers have been working on for years.
WHO and its partners have already started testing two experimental shots, including a recently launched large-scale study to see if a vaccine can help protect people already exposed to the lethal virus but who haven't yet developed the disease. Even though the vaccine may come too late to make a difference to this Ebola outbreak, it could prove invaluable later.
"If we (have) a vaccine stockpile for the future, we might be able to prevent (future outbreaks) from turning into what has happened in West Africa," said Sebastian Funk, an infectious diseases expert at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.