* Liberia hardest hit in world’s worst outbreak
* Authorities start tracing victim’s contacts
* Ebola epidemic tapers sharply this year (Adds details throughout, quotes from residents)
By Alphonso Toweh
MONROVIA, June 30 (Reuters) - A Liberian teenager has died of Ebola, more than seven weeks after the west African country was declared free of the virus, a government minister said on Tuesday.
The body of the 17-year-old tested positive for Ebola on Sunday and he was buried the same day. Authorities have begun tracing people he may have come into contact with while infected, Deputy Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah said.
“There is no need to panic. The corpse has been buried and our contact tracing has started work,” Nyenswah told Reuters.
Officials were not immediately able to say how the victim caught the virus.
It is the first recorded case of the disease in Liberia, one of the countries at the heart of the world’s worst Ebola epidemic, since it was declared virus-free on May 9 after going 42 days without any new infections.
The new one was in Margibi County, a rural area near the capital Monrovia. Margibi is home to the country’s main international airport.
Aid workers said they were encouraged that authorities had followed swift burial procedures but said there was a risk of further cases, especially since the virus was only detected posthumously.
Ebola, which is transmitted through body fluids, is most contagious during the late stages when victims often suffer heavy bleeding, diarrhoea and vomiting.
In the streets of Monrovia, people expressed fear of another flare-up in cases as shopkeepers began placing buckets of chlorine in entrance ways.
“The killer has returned again. I think we were very relaxed after the World Health Organization declared Liberia free of Ebola,” said Rachel Massaquoi, a trader.
A total of 11,207 people have died from Ebola in Liberia, neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone since the outbreak began in December 2013, according to the WHO. Around 43 percent of those deaths were in Liberia, where the epidemic peaked between August and October with hundreds of cases a week.
New incidences have tapered this year, with 12 new confirmed cases reported in Guinea and eight in Sierra Leone in the week to June 21, according to WHO figures. Even so, health officials urge vigilance to prevent a resurgence of the disease.
The new case will test Liberia’s response capacity at a time when international health organisations have wound down their presence in the affected countries, said Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, spokeswoman for the U.N. Ebola response mission.
“This should have been expected because as long as there is Ebola in the region, no one country can be safe. Liberia is vulnerable because of Guinea and Sierra Leone,” she added.
Liberia’s Nyenswah said protective measures were being strengthened at the airport. There are no plans to close land borders.
A military operation from long-term ally the United States, plus hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, helped Liberia control the outbreak by improving sanitation and providing safe burials.
Ebola damaged the health care systems and economies of the three West African countries and caused global alarm that peaked in September and October when isolated cases were confirmed in countries such as the United States and Spain. Nigeria, Senegal and Mali also recorded at least one case each. (Additional reporting by James Harding Giahyue in Monrovia, Matthew Mpoke Bigg in Accra and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)