UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon celebrated the impending end of West Africa's Ebola epidemic with cautious relief, warning that future flare-ups are inevitable and imploring the world not to let its guard down.
Ban said West Africa is on "the cusp of being declared free of Ebola transmission." That will happen Thursday when Liberia officially joins Guinea in Sierra Leone in being declared Ebola-free.
"These achievements could not have happened without the decisive leadership of the presidents and other national authorities of three affected countries and the engagement of all communities," Ban said at a U.N. General Assembly meeting Wednesday marking the milestone. "Of course, significant challenges remain. We can anticipate future flare-ups of Ebola in the coming year."
Ban said the potential and frequency of flare-ups are expected to decrease over time. Still, he said governments will need resources to prevent infection and respond rapidly to new cases. And he said more than 10,000 Ebola survivors will need aid.
"Sometimes when a challenge moves out of a crisis phase, the world tends to move on. Sometimes it even forgets," Ban said. "Let us pledge to maintain our vigilance, our commitment and our solidarity for the people of West Africa and our world."
The World Health Organization declares that Ebola disease transmission has ended when a country goes through two incubation periods — 21 days each — without a new case emerging. Sierra Leone reached that goal on Nov. 7 and Guinea on Dec. 29.
The Ebola outbreak claimed more than 11,300 lives since first emerging in Guinea in December 2013. The WHO came under criticism for not sounding the international alarm until August 2014, two months after the epidemic had already become the deadliest ever recorded.
WHO chief Margaret Chan celebrated the coming end of the epidemic but told the General Assembly via video link that the next three months "are critical" when responsibility shifts back to national governments.
Dr. David Nabarro, the U.N. Ebola chief, praised Chan for saying that it is not enough to have fought Ebola "but we are going to change all WHO so it has structured staff and a budget to do better" in confronting future health crises.