West Africa's Ebola outbreak was rightly one of the biggest news stories of the last two years. The epidemic claimed more than 10,000 lives, devastated whole communities and turned the lives of millions of children upside down as their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers were snatched away by this unforgiving illness. The longest and deadliest Ebola outbreak in history is believed to have begun in the south-eastern corner of Guinea in late 2013, before spreading to Liberia, Sierra Leone and beyond.
Of the more than 28,000 people infected one in five were children. More than 19,000 were orphaned by the disease, losing one or both parents. Almost 10 million children and young people under the age of 20 live in areas that were affected by the Ebola virus. The scale of the crisis has been unique and its consequences for the communities affected utterly dire, setting back development progress in some of the poorest places in the world. I'm in awe of my Unicef colleagues working on the ground who have witnessed such devastation and remained so completely determined to end the suffering.
And yet, there is cause for optimism. Through a combination of world class professional expertise and sheer commitment and determination, agencies such as Unicef, charity partners and governments worked together to bring a halt to the wave of death and to protect those who have survived.
Today marks an important and positive moment. Two years since the start of the outbreak, Liberia is today the final country to be declared officially Ebola-free. This follows the end of the epidemic in Guinea, at the end of December, and in Sierra Leone in November. That all three countries have now succeeded in ending human-to-human transmission is cause for great relief. Unicef staff who have been working around the clock to protect the thousands of children and families affected and help them rebuild their lives have real cause to celebrate.
But we cannot become complacent. This is just the start of the recovery for communities that have been ravaged by disease - thousands of children whose lives have been turned upside down need us to stay the course and keep them safe from the many dangers they continue to face. We cannot let them down now.
Unicef's priority has been getting the number of cases to zero, while at the same time ensuring that critical services for children are maintained, and building on the investments made to support long-term development. We have also promoted investment in healthcare and welfare systems to try to prevent future outbreaks, to tackle other killer diseases and to build sustainable programmes that better protect the health and wellbeing of children in the affected countries and beyond. Our work for children and families affected by the crisis will continue in the coming months and years, and we will work to ensure that lessons learned from the outbreak are used to promote lasting change to protect children.
We must stay alert and the surveillance systems in place must be continued. Liberia had previously been declared Ebola-free in May and September last year, only for further cases to occur. If further cases do occur we must be ready to act.
We must also work to address the stigma and ostracisation that many survivors continue to face, and ensure that children affected by the outbreak are given the protection and access to the services they need, including psychosocial support, healthcare and education.
We must also support the government to ensure children who may have missed out on education during the crisis are able to get back into school as soon as possible. 5 million children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were not able to go to school for more than six months due to quarantine or because schools were closed to prevent infection. Schools are vital places of safety and hope for children, especially during emergencies, allowing them a safe space to learn, play and escape the troubles they face. Without this safety net, children are often vulnerable to exploitation, violence and abuse.
And Unicef is prioritising the birth registration of children born during the outbreak. More than 70,000 were not registered when their parents became too scared to attend health centres during the outbreak. Without registration these babies do not 'officially exist' meaning they could miss out on entitlements to basic services such as healthcare and education.
For now, the epidemic is officially over and families and communities are beginning to rebuild their lives, but the work of organisations such as Unicef remains as important as ever. Even before the Ebola outbreak, Liberia had one of the highest child mortality rates in the world, and combatting this continues to be one of our biggest challenges in the country. Now, even though the worst has passed, Liberia faces and even longer road to recovery. Over the next five years, working in partnership with the Liberian Government, we're aiming to reach every child under the age of five in the country, and protect them from the danger of malnutrition. As the children, families and communities affected are beginning to rebuild their lives, Unicef will be there to support them.