The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says he remains "very confident" that the Ebola outbreak that has devastated West Africa can be stopped.
Speaking at a meeting with public health officials and lawmakers Tuesday in Washington, Dr. Tom Frieden said the world would get to zero cases in the epidemic "if we continue the way we are going and nothing unexpected happens."
“This has been a devastating epidemic. ... It has stretched the world systems and taught us what more we need to do” to fight such diseases, he said.
Frieden noted that the epidemic, which started in Guinea about a year ago, could have been prevented if the countries had been better prepared.
"If a year ago we had surveillance systems in the … region where the disease emerged, it is quite possible that we could have responded quickly and ended the outbreak long ago, before so many lives and so much devastation happened,” he said.
In recent weeks, the number of new cases per day has dropped into the single digits in Liberia and Sierra Leone, compared with 30 or 40 a few weeks ago. But Frieden said the Ebola threat was "nowhere near" the point of being eliminated, especially in Guinea.
“Guinea has come close to controlling it on two different occasions and maybe they got a little bit relaxed and dropped the ball, and it came roaring back," he said. "That importance of following every single case until we get to zero is absolutely essential.”
Frieden said "the largest single risk" health officials face is that the disease may become "endemic," meaning it would continue to spread at a low rate. He said that was not an acceptable outcome, because it meant Ebola could "flare up" again.
There have been 21,171 reported Ebola cases, most of them in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and 8,371 people have died.
U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat who is co-chair of the Congressional Global Health Caucus, said the bulk of the anti-Ebola effort needs to focus on prevention.
“We need to work together internationally to set up better global surveillance, not just when it is happening or after it has happened, but before it happens," she said. "We live in an interconnected world.”
U.S. Representative Karen Baas of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee's subcommittee on Africa, global health, global human rights and international organizations, said the crisis continues, even if it no longer dominates the daily news.
“We all watched the Ebola become a major crisis in the United States, and like everything, when something leaves the headlines, we all know that does not mean the crisis is gone; it also does not mean that things are not getting better," she said.
Two new World Bank Group reports called the socioeconomic impact of Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone "far-reaching and persistent."
The group said Monday that its latest mobile phone surveys showed both countries continue to experience such Ebola side effects as job losses and food insecurity. As a result, it said, the current and future prosperity of households is at high risk.
VOA's Mariama Diallo contributed to this report.