9:21 p.m. EDT October 8, 2014
LAGOS, Nigeria — People here are shaking hands again, kissing, hugging, touching. These days, shops are open, people are working, and children are finally going back to school.
That's because Nigeria — Africa's most populous country — is officially Ebola-free, the health ministry said, even as the deadly virus rages on in neighboring countries, where lockdowns and quarantines are common and death rates are rising.
As the United States and Spain deal with their first diagnosed cases of Ebola and fears that the virus could spread, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sending researchers to Lagos to study how Nigeria was able to contain the disease. No new cases have been reported there since Aug. 31, the CDC said.
Nigeria's "extensive response to a single case of Ebola shows that control is possible with rapid, focused interventions," CDC Director Tom Frieden said.
Christine Afafa, 27, a mother of two in Lagos, said it was impossible for her to imagine her country could win the fight against Ebola so quickly. She said it's a relief to get back to normal, with schools starting this week.
"We're very happy as parents to take our children back to school after a long break," Afafa said. "Our confidence has now been restored. We are free to allow our children to interact with others again."
Nigeria was hit with Ebola after Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-born American, brought the deadly virus to Lagos when he flew there on July 20. Since the country was already on alert for the virus, health officials acted quickly and determined that he came into contact with 59 people while at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport and at the hospital.
A burial team from the Liberian Red Cross sprays disinfectant over the body bag of an Ebola victim while collecting the man at his home near Monrovia, Liberia. (Photo: John Moore, Getty Images)FullscreenNext Slide
The government immediately imposed strict measures to quarantine those who were ill and to screen thousands of their contacts around the densely populated Lagos.
President Goodluck Jonathan declared a national emergency, closed schools and set about tracing who had been in contact with those infected. Also, the government distributed leaflets and put up billboards in multiple local languages to educate the public on preventive measures and symptoms of the Ebola virus.
The government even advised people to use ashes to clean their hands, for those who couldn't afford to buy soap.
"This is how we won the fight against Ebola virus," said Commissioner for Health Jide Idris. "We swiftly worked together as a country when we discovered cases of the virus. The people of Nigeria were very cooperative. They followed the instructions that were given."
Nigerians are still warned to remain vigilant about the illness and to take preventative measures. Despite the warnings, the mood on the streets of Lagos was joyous at what seems a return to normal life.
"It was difficult even to meet your close relatives and friends due to fear of contacting Ebola virus," said Dan Adeboye, 45, who resumed his work shining shoes last week. "But now we can talk and do our work without fear."
The Ebola virus continues to wreak havoc in neighboring Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
The World Health Organization said there are now more than 8,000 cases of people infected with the Ebola virus since the outbreak began five months ago. About half that number have died from the disease.
In Liberia, the hardest-hit country, the situation has worsened despite government efforts to quarantine victims and to spread awareness about the disease and prevention measures.
"We are like people who are in prison without freedom and food to eat," said Judith Hawah, a parent of three in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. "You can't just move anywhere to look for food because of fear of Ebola."
In Sierra Leone, the rate of infection is increasing: Five people are infected each hour, according to Save the Children.
That is in spite of a widespread quarantine and lockdown of entire districts and thousands of households.
These days, on the streets of Sierra Leone's fourth-largest city, Makeni, the occasional rumbles of a car engine are cause for excitement. Since the Ebola quarantine began last month, only cars with special permits can pass through the city, and motorcycles are forbidden.
As authorities try to contain the virus, day-to-day life has come to a standstill.
"The city of Makeni is becoming very boring," said Abass Gbla, 70, who used to sell soap in the market but now stays inside because of the quarantine.
He said the lockdown has muted what are usually lively community celebrations.
Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is one of the five major U.S. airports that will start Ebola screenings of travelers from West Africa, federal officials said Wednesday. VPC
"Normally on the feast of Eid al-Adha, Muslims converge in open fields to offer Eid prayers and slaughter cattle in following the doctrine of Abraham," Gbla said, referring to a holiday this past weekend. "But we were unsure we would even be allowed to pray."
Still, it is difficult for the 100,000 residents of Makeni to celebrate with strict curfews, guidelines prohibiting contact with others and shortages of food, water and medicine.
Traders have hiked the price of goods, even with the threat of penalties for doing that. And so far requests by trade unions to bring in supplies to the quarantined areas have been rebuffed. Makeni remains shut down, hungry and sick, residents say.
In Port Loko, another quarantined district in northern Sierra Leone, there were 91 new cases and 11 deaths within two days last week, said resident Osman Justine Conteh, 26.
"This situation cannot be contained by our own medical personnel, because this disease is strange," Conteh said. "We want more help from the outside."
Others say they are resorting to prayer.
"I am currently fasting to ask the almighty Allah to save us from this situation," Gbla said. "But if authorities don't give a few traders passes to travel in and out and buy food, we are in a big trouble."