The World Health Organization has detected slowing in the number of reported new cases of Ebola infections in Liberia in recent days, leading its top official in charge of combating the outbreak to express cautious optimism Wednesday that health workers may be gaining a modicum of control over the disease.
“It appears the trend is real. There may be a slowing of the epidemic there,” said Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director general. “Do we feel confident that the response is now getting the upper hand on the virus? Yes, we are seeing a slowing of the rate of new cases, very definitely.”
Still, Aylward provided statistics that showed the outbreak is more than a third larger than had been tallied just four days earlier. At least 13,703 cases of Ebola had been recorded in this outbreak, he said. Only Saturday, the caseload stood at 10,141.
Of those cases, 4,920 people had died as of Monday, the WHO said in an update. It described the transmission of Ebola as “persistent and widespread” in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
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It said 521 health care workers were known to have been infected, of whom 272 had died.
Aylward said the increase in cases was due to an update in the records for old cases rather than new ones. WHO officials had said on several occasions that the disease was spreading too quickly for workers in the field to keep accurate records.
Aylward also said a number of developments pointed to a slowing in the rate of infection in Liberia, including fewer reports of new cases, fewer burials of victims, a drop in occupancy in treatment centers and a slight decline in positive lab tests.
He said the improvements were most likely due to a number of factors, including earlier isolation of patients, better treatment and better tracing of those who might have come in contact with contagious people.
Public information campaigns and an emphasis on the safe burial of those who die from Ebola are also major contributors to the optimism, Aylward said.
Still, he sounded a cautious note. “This thing hasn’t dropped off the cliff like that,” he said.
“A slight decline in cases in a few days versus getting this thing closed out is a completely different ball game,” he said. “It’s like saying your pet tiger is under control.”
The mortality rate from Ebola remains around 70 percent, he said, and there are major gaps in the global effort to contain the virus. Only 15 of the needed 56 Ebola care centers are functioning in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the hardest-hit countries. The WHO is still seeking donors and medical teams for 19 of those needed centers, he said.
Staffing remains a major problem. According to Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO spokesman, there are two foreign medical teams operating Ebola treatment centers in Liberia, five in Sierra Leone and two in Guinea, and an additional 14 foreign medical teams are needed in Liberia and five to six in Guinea.
The WHO estimates that for a 35-bed Ebola treatment unit, 24 health care personnel are needed for each eight-hour shift, or about 72 people in total.