MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – TIME magazine on Wednesday, December 10, named ebola fighters as their Persons of the Year for 2014.
"For tireless acts of courage and mercy, for buying the world time to boost its defenses, for risking, for persisting, for sacrificing and saving, the Ebola fighters are TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year," the magazine said.
The year 2014 saw Ebola transform from being an outbreak to an epidemic, hitting West African countries – Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone – the hardest. The disease also reached Europe and the United States.
The epidemic has already killed 6,756 out of the 17,991 known cases of infection. (READ: FAST FACTS: Deadliest Ebola outbreaks since 1976)
"For decades, Ebola haunted rural African villages like some mythic monster that every few years rose to demand a human sacrifice and then returned to its cave. It reached the West only in nightmare form, a Hollywood horror that makes eyes bleed and organs dissolve and doctors despair because they have no cure," said TIME managing editor Nancy Gibbs.
TIME said the disease showed the weak health infrastructure in many countries and how even the World Health Organization (WHO) was "in denial and snarled in red tape."
"First responders were accused of crying wolf, even as the danger grew. But the people in the field, the special forces of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the Christian medical-relief workers of Samaritan’s Purse, and many others from all over the world fought side by side with local doctors and nurses, ambulance drivers and burial teams," the magazine said.
"So that is the next challenge: What will we do with what we’ve learned? This was a test of the world’s ability to respond to potential pandemics, and it did not go well," Gibbs said.
She added: "How do you secure a country, beyond taking passengers’ temperatures at the airport? Who has the power to order citizens to stay home, to post a guard outside their door? What will it take to develop treatments for diseases largely confined to poor nations, even as this Ebola outbreak had taken far more lives by mid-October than all the earlier ones combined?"
'Heroism and selflessness'
The White House welcomed the accolade as a tribute to the "heroism and selflessness" of countless health care workers.
"The administration, including the president, could not be prouder of the brave men and women who've committed themselves to this effort in a foreign land," said spokesman Josh Earnest.
"These are men and women who deserve international recognition, and today we are pleased that they're receiving more of it."
US President Barack Obama has made a pointed effort to calm hysteria in the United States over how Ebola is contracted by welcoming survivors to the White House.
Nina Pham, a nurse who contracted Ebola while caring for the first patient diagnosed on US soil, said she was delighted to be part of the accolade.
"So honored to be a part of @Time Magazine's POY!" she tweeted.
Pham, who was hugged by Obama at the White House after surviving her ordeal, and another nurse in Dallas became infected with Ebola while caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, who died on October 8.
Both nurses survived.
Duncan was diagnosed after traveling from his homeland Liberia to the United States, where he was initially sent home from hospital.
The White House said the only way to bring the epidemic under control and prevent additional cases in the United States was to recruit and train more medical professionals.
'Ebola is a war and a warning'
On Tuesday, the United Nations' Ebola czar, David Nabarro, welcomed widespread progress in the fight against the virus, but warned cases were still surging in western Sierra Leone and northern Guinea.
He called for more foreign health workers and specialists in areas where the disease was still spreading quickly, as well as more treatment units and beds.
Gibbs said governments were not equipped to respond to the crisis, the World Health Organization had been in denial and snarled in red tape, and first responders were accused of crying wolf.
She paid tribute to the people in the field: those sent by charities such as Doctors Without Borders, as well as local doctors and nurses, ambulance drivers and burial teams.
"Ebola is a war, and a warning. The global health system is nowhere close to strong enough to keep us safe from infectious disease," wrote Gibbs.
"And 'us' means everyone, not just those in faraway places where this is one threat among many that claim lives every day."
The runners-up chosen by TIME were protesters who took to the streets in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson to condemn the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer.
Also shortlisted were Russian President Vladimir Putin, Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's Kurdistan region, and China's richest man Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba. – With reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com