WASHINGTON, March 29 (UPI) -- Although small clusters of Ebola patients are expected to continue cropping up, the World Health Organization today declared the global emergency response to the virus over.
The three countries at the center of the Ebola outbreak -- Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone -- have all cleared surveillance periods for new cases linked to the original chain of transmission for at least four months, which the agency said is sufficient to lower international concern.
Members of the International Health Regulations committee on Ebola said that while the epidemic is functionally over, the effort to prevent re-emergence of the virus requires countries and entities involved with the epidemic to stay involved, and be ready to contribute again if a new epidemic emerges.
Ebola is still present in the ecosystems of the countries, according to the WHO, and clusters of re-emergence are expected to occur, either because of survivors who still carry the virus or entirely new infections. The agency said, however, that affected countries have been set up in recent years to handle the number of cases they think will occur going forward.
"The Committee provided its view that Ebola transmission in West Africa no longer constitutes an extraordinary event, that the risk of international spread is now low, and that countries currently have the capacity to respond rapidly to new virus emergences," WHO committee members said in a press release, adding travel and trade restrictions to West Africa should be lifted "immediately."
Since emerging as a global health threat in 2013, Ebola has been confirmed in 28,639 people and is blamed for 11,316 deaths, with more than 10,000 people surviving the disease, according to the WHO.
In the cases of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which were at the epicenter of the Ebola epidemic, all three countries reported they have met criteria to confirm the original chain of virus transmission had been broken. All three countries completed a 42-day observation period after the last new case of Ebola was found, and then made it another 90 days, which Guinea was the last to confirm on March 27, 2016.
The virus remains in survivors' systems for months, if not longer, as shown in recent studies by the University of Liverpool and the Liberian Ministry of Health -- one reason committee members are not taken aback by the 12 clusters of the virus which were detected, and transmission of the virus was limited in 11 of them.
The Ebola virus is spread by direct contact with an infected patient, or fluids from the patient. The WHO is recommending efforts for men to have semen tested for Ebola be stepped up around the world because of its ability to survive for more than nine months and, though rare, be passed on to sexual partners.
"National and international efforts must be intensified to ensure that male survivors can have their semen tested for virus persistence and know their status," committee members said. "Particularly important will be to ensure that communities can rapidly and fully engage in any future response, cases are quickly isolated and managed, local population movement in the affected areas is managed, and appropriate contact lists are shared with border authorities."