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WHO: Ebola Declining but Still a Threat

FILE - The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
FILE - The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

The World Health Organization this week reported a steep decline of Ebola cases over the last three weeks in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. WHO says the trend is very encouraging, but warns the Ebola epidemic is far from over and countries must remain vigilant.

WHO reports the cumulative number of Ebola cases in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea now stands at 21,797. Over the last 21 days — the incubation period for the Ebola virus — Sierra Leone reported 463 new cases of Ebola, Guinea 109, and Liberia 21.

Bruce Aylward, the WHO assistant director-general in charge of the Ebola operational response, says this probably represents the lowest number of cases seen in a three-week period over the last three or four months.

“So, this is a real substantive reduction," Aylward said. "We for the first time now have seen a week-on-week reduction of cases for the last four weeks, so that's the first time across all three countries we have been seeing that trend.”

Aylward has just returned from an extensive three-week tour of West Africa. He says this is the first time the Ebola-affected countries have truly been in a position to stop the outbreak.

He says the countries now have enough beds for those who become sick. He says there now are enough burial teams in all areas to safely bury the dead, and more people are available to identify and trace those who have come in contact with Ebola patients.

But, he cautions that these positive responses and the improved infrastructure will not bring the cases of Ebola down to zero.

“To stop transmission, we have got to go beyond dealing with the consequences and really start dealing with the transmission chains," Aylward said. "And, that means understanding where exactly the transmission is arising from in each area, being able to properly and accurately identify the contacts, and being able then to monitor them and ensure any new infections are detected before they can infect other people.”

Aylward says WHO currently has 750 people on the ground to track chains of transmission. He says that number should be boosted to 1,000. But, he says, the biggest threat to finishing the job and bringing Ebola cases down to zero is lack of money.

He says the United Nations needs $1.5 billion over the next six months to completely defeat Ebola. To date, $500 million has been pledged. But, the rate of new contributions has slowed down. He attributes this to the inroads being made in overcoming the disease.

As new cases start to decline, Aylward says pledges do not get realized and new pledges do not get made. He warns that as things stand now, the anti-Ebola effort will run out of cash in mid-February — four or five months before this deadly virus can be stopped in the best case scenario.