MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — On the day Mercy Kennedy lost her mother to Ebola, it was hard to imagine a time when Liberia would be free from one of the world's deadliest viruses. It had swept through the 9-year-old's neighborhood, killing people house by house.
Neighbors were so fearful that Mercy, too, might be sick that no one would touch her to comfort her as tears streamed down her face. She had only a tree to lean on as she wept.
Now seven months later, Liberia on Saturday officially marked the end of the epidemic that claimed more than 4,700 lives here, and Mercy is thriving in the care of a family friend not far from where she used to live.
"What we went through here was terrifying," said Martu Weefor, 39, who is raising Mercy alongside her three biological children and Mercy's older brother. "Nobody wanted to pass on our road or have anything to do with us. Everybody was afraid of the community. I thank God that Liberia is free from Ebola."
Saturday marked 42 days since Liberia's last Ebola case — the benchmark used to declare the outbreak over, because it represents two incubation periods of 21 days for new cases to emerge. The World Health Organization on Saturday called the milestone a "monumental achievement for a country that reported the highest number of deaths in the largest, longest and most complex outbreak since Ebola first emerged in 1976."
The statistics of loss, though, are enormous in Liberia: 189 health workers dead. Some 3,290 children lost one or both parents to the disease, though most have been placed with other relatives or in foster care.
While praising the international community's help in getting Liberia to zero cases, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Saturday criticized the slow initial response to the epidemic in West Africa that cost many lives.
"This Ebola outbreak is a scar on the conscience of the world. For some the pain and grief will take a generation to heal," she said. "Therefore, let today's announcement be a call to arms that we will build a better world for those Ebola could not reach. ... It is the least the memories of our dearly departed deserve."
Elsewhere in West Africa, new cases were reported last week in Sierra Leone and in Guinea, where five of the new victims were diagnosed only after death. The fact that the victims had never even sought treatment for Ebola means that health officials lost critical time to track their relatives and other contacts.
"It's important to remember the next case is only a canoe ride away across the river or across a forest path, so we still have an element of risk here and we all need to be very conscious of that," said Sheldon Yett, UNICEF's representative in Liberia, who emphasized that the recovery needs remain enormous.
At the height of the crisis last August and September, Saturday's milestone seemed far from reach. Liberia had between 300 and 400 new cases every week. People pushed victims in wheelbarrows down the streets of Monrovia, with only cheap plastic bags to protect their sandaled feet from possible exposure. Scores of people too sick to stand waited outside Ebola treatment centers with the hope that enough people had died overnight so there would be beds for them and a chance at life.
Today there are concerns about the long-term effects of Ebola on survivors, including questions about how long the virus remains present in the body. On Friday, the WHO updated advice and testing guidelines for male survivors of Ebola because of the "strong possibility" that the virus could be spread through sex months later.
And a medical study last week found Ebola inside the eye of a patient months after the virus was gone from his blood. Tears and tissue around the outside of the eye, though, did not contain the virus. That suggests that it poses little public health risk, experts said.
It's been nearly a year since Korlia Bonarwolo helped care for a co-worker at Redemption Hospital who later died from Ebola. The physician assistant had no protective suit and no special gloves.
The 26-year-old ultimately got treatment in the country's first Ebola treatment center and now leads a network of more than 800 survivors across Liberia. He, too, was marking Saturday cautiously.
"We should instead be happy in our hearts," Bonarwolo said, "and pray for the other countries to be freed."