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Good news: Senegal is officially Ebola-free

(Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP)

There's a sliver of good news in the Ebola outbreak: two African countries are successfully halting the spread of the disease.

The World Health Organizationannounced today that the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria is officially over. This is three days after the organization announced that Senegal had also successfully halted Ebola's spread. The WHO declares an Ebola outbreak as officially over when a country has gone 42 days without any new cases of the disease.

Senegal had one case of Ebola, in which the patient was successfully treated. Nigeria had 19 cases and eight deaths.

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The lesson of Senegal and Nigeria is, in a way, optimistic. The two countries show that Ebola is a disease that we know how to contain. Health workers have done it in numerous outbreaks before and, in these two countries, they have done it again.

In Nigeria, public health workers were able to link all 19 cases back to the one air traveler who brought the disease into the country from Liberia. During his treatment, much like in the United States, his health care workers contracted the disease.

The WHO has described what happened next as "word-class epidemiological detective work."

To do this, Nigerian epidemiologists came up with a daunting list of 894 people whom the patients had come into contact with — and visited each and every one of them. A BBC report describes the labor-intensive, and ultimately successful, approach:

Specialists then calculated how many people were living within a particular radius of the 894 people who were being monitored. This depended on the density of the housing in each particular area.

The result was that officials and volunteers embarked on rounds of visits that would take them to an extraordinary 26,000 households.

A key policy throughout this arduous process was to involve the communities and to encourage people to be as honest as possible about their movements and contacts. It obviously worked.

In Senegal, one man traveled from Guinea to Dakar by road after coming into contact with an Ebola patient. The Senegalese government closely monitored the 74 people in Dakar the man had come into contact with, none of whom ultimately contracted the disease.

Senegal and Nigeria are relatively richer countries than those that have struggled to contain Ebola outbreaks. Nigeria spends an average of $128 per person on health care and Senegal spends $111. This pales in comparison to what more developed countries spend (the United States, for example, spends $8,233 per person) but is also slightly more than Liberia, which has over 2,800 cases, and spends $88 per capita on health care.

Senegal and Nigeria show it is, without a doubt, reasonable to expect the United States to contain the spread of Ebola. We spend 70 times as much per person on health care. That builds a relatively robust system that keep Ebola under control.

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Any country eradicating Ebola is great news right now. Not just for the health and safety of its citizens, but because reducing the number of countries with Ebola outbreaks frees up much needed resources to fight the disease in places where it continues to spread. And it shows what public health workers have know for decades: this disease is stoppable.