Sierra Leone celebrates end of Ebola epidemic

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FREETOWN, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Residents of Sierra Leone's capital held a candlelit vigil and celebrations overnight to mark the end of an Ebola epidemic that has killed almost 4,000 people including more than 200 health workers since it began last year.

Following 42 days with no new cases, the West African nation's epidemic will be declared officially over on Saturday at a ceremony attended by President Ernest Bai Koroma and U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) representative Anders Nordstrom.

Thousands of people gathered under the Cotton Tree, a massive tree in the centre of the capital, Freetown, overnight for a candlelight vigil organised by women's groups to pay tribute to health workers who died.

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Sierra Leone celebrates end of Ebola epidemic
A health worker prepares a vaccination on March 10, 2015 at a health center in Conakry during the first clinical trials of the VSV-EBOV vaccine against the Ebola virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) said on March 5 that clinical trials launched on March 7 in Guinea marked the last step before the vaccine is available on the market. AFP PHOTO / CELLOU BINANI (Photo credit should read CELLOU BINANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman gets vaccinated on March 10, 2015 at a health center in Conakry during the first clinical trials of the VSV-EBOV vaccine against the Ebola virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) said on March 5 that clinical trials launched on March 7 in Guinea marked the last step before the vaccine is available on the market. AFP PHOTO / CELLOU BINANI (Photo credit should read CELLOU BINANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman gets vaccinated on March 10, 2015 at a health center in Conakry during the first clinical trials of the VSV-EBOV vaccine against the Ebola virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) said on March 5 that clinical trials launched on March 7 in Guinea marked the last step before the vaccine is available on the market. AFP PHOTO / CELLOU BINANI (Photo credit should read CELLOU BINANI/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this March 7, 2015 file photo, a health worker, right, cleans a man's arm before injecting him with a Ebola vaccine in Conakry, Guinea. An experimental vaccine tested on thousands of people in Guinea exposed to Ebola seems to work and might help shut down the ongoing epidemic in West Africa, according to interim results from a study published Friday, July 31, 2015. There is currently no licensed treatment or vaccine for Ebola, which has so far killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa since the worldâs biggest outbreak began last year. (AP Photo/ Youssouf Bah, File)
FILE In this Monday, Jan. 19, 2015 file photo, a health care worker, right, takes the temperatures of school children for signs of the Ebola virus before they enter their school in the city of Conakry, Guinea. The World Health Organization says it will soon start large-scale testing of an experimental Ebola vaccine in Guinea to see how effective it might be in preventing future outbreaks of the dreaded virus. In a statement issued on Thursday, March 5, 2015, the U.N. health agency said the study will be focused in Basse Guinee, the region that currently has the most Ebola cases in the country. (AP Photo/Youssouf Bah, File)
A man gets vaccinated on March 10, 2015 at a health center in Conakry during the first clinical trials of the VSV-EBOV vaccine against the Ebola virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) said on March 5 that clinical trials launched on March 7 in Guinea marked the last step before the vaccine is available on the market. AFP PHOTO / CELLOU BINANI (Photo credit should read CELLOU BINANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A dose of the VSV-EBOV vaccine against the Ebola virus sits on March 10, 2015 at a health center in Conakry during its first clinical trial on humans. The World Health Organization (WHO) said on March 5 that clinical trials launched on March 7 in Guinea marked the last step before the vaccine is available on the market. AFP PHOTO / CELLOU BINANI (Photo credit should read CELLOU BINANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman gets vaccinated on March 10, 2015 at a health center in Conakry during the first clinical trials of the VSV-EBOV vaccine against the Ebola virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) said on March 5 that clinical trials launched on March 7 in Guinea marked the last step before the vaccine is available on the market. AFP PHOTO / CELLOU BINANI (Photo credit should read CELLOU BINANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A man gets vaccinated on March 10, 2015 at a health center in Conakry during the first clinical trials of the VSV-EBOV vaccine against the Ebola virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) said on March 5 that clinical trials launched on March 7 in Guinea marked the last step before the vaccine is available on the market. AFP PHOTO / CELLOU BINANI (Photo credit should read CELLOU BINANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A health worker, left, injects a man in his arm with an Ebola vaccine in Conakry, Guinea, March 7, 2015. The World Health Organization will start large-scale testing of an experimental Ebola vaccine in Guinea on Saturday to see how effective it might be in preventing future outbreaks of the deadly virus. The West African nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have been hardest hit in the yearlong Ebola outbreak, which is estimated to have left more than 9,800 people dead. (AP Photo/ Youssouf Bah)
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"They died so we could live," Fatmata, a university student, said with tears in her eyes. Many of the health workers who died were infected due to inadequate protective equipment and training.

The country's first confirmed Ebola survivor, Victoria Yillia, told the crowd she was "happy that this disease which almost killed me has finally ended". She appealed to authorities not to forget survivors, many of whom have faced social stigma and persistent health problems.

Elsewhere in the city, residents celebrated the end of the epidemic, which forced schools to close, overwhelmed healthcare systems and hurt the local economy.

"We're happy. I feel free again after a period of bondage in the hands of Ebola," said trader Joseph Katta as he clutched a pint of beer at a pub in the suburb of Lumley.

Ebola has killed more than 11,300 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea since the epidemic was announced in March 2014 and about 28,500 were infected, according to WHO data. Sierra Leone's death toll was 3,955 people.

Liberia was declared free of Ebola on Sept. 3, while a handful of cases remain in Guinea.

The 42-day countdown to be declared Ebola-free starts when the last patient tests negative a second time, normally after a 48-hour gap following their first negative test.

Fear of the virus transformed the three countries and hampered efforts in Sierra Leone and Liberia to recover from civil wars.

At the height of the epidemic, the two countries ordered everyone to stay indoors for days at a time in an attempt to identify new cases and slow the disease's spread.

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