United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon is on a tour of West African nations struggling with Ebola, pledging continued U.N. help to fight the outbreak.
Ban visited Sierra Leone Friday, where he praised health care workers fighting Ebola as heroes, and noted the loss of a prominent physician, Dr. Victor Willoughby, who on Thursday became the 11th doctor killed by Ebola in the country.
The U.N. secretary-general said everyone must be "super-vigilant" against the virus, adding that "the only acceptable goal is zero cases."
Ban also praised Liberia's efforts to halt the Ebola epidemic, but warned that much work is left to be done.
Ban visited Liberia earlier Friday, which was the second stop on his tour of West African nations hit by the outbreak. At a joint news conference with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, he said there is reason to be "cautiously optimistic" the outbreak can be defeated.
The U.N. chief said more people are gaining access to treatment, and burials of Ebola victims have become safer. But he warned that "just one case can trigger an epidemic."
Ban's tour aims to raise the profile of the efforts to fight Ebola and to thank the hundreds of organizations and thousands of health workers who have participated, he said. “Our goal is to see the last case identified and cured,” Ban told Reuters.
“We would like to urge local communities that this is a temporary operation and we fully respect the cultural traditions but at this time it is important to abide by health protocols.”
Traditional West African practices — such as washing the bodies of the dead by hand at funerals — have helped to spread the fever, which has no known cure.
New figures Friday from the World Health Organization put the total number of Ebola cases at 18,603 and the death toll at 6,915.
The report said the number of new cases is declining in Liberia, "fluctuating" in Guinea and may have stopped increasing in Sierra Leone. It noted there have been no new cases reported in Mali since November 24.
Liberia still has the highest death toll from the epidemic at 3,290. The country is scheduled to hold midterm elections on Saturday, and some critics question the wisdom of holding an election amid the outbreak.
Ban said the election will show the world how far Liberia has come, and he urged people going to the polls to follow public health guidelines to prevent infection.
He also said he has recommended to the U.N. Security Council that it not withdraw its mission from Liberia until 2016, giving Liberia more time and resources to get Ebola under control.
On Thursday, Ban visited the U.N. mission for Ebola response in Ghana's capital, Accra, and met with Ghanaian President John Mahama.
During his trip, the secretary-general is also due to visit Guinea, Mali and Sierra Leone, where rates of infection are rising fastest. Sierra Leone accounts for more than half of the 18,603 confirmed cases of the virus. Infection is also spreading rapidly around the coastal capital Freetown, where some aid workers say public information efforts have lagged.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it had opened two new Ebola treatment centers in Sierra Leone to cope with the rise in cases — in Freetown and the central town of Magburaka, bringing its total in the country to four.
Portions of this report are from Reuters.