People still dying from Ebola as WHO expert warns of declining world interest

Despite the optimistic reports about the slowing of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, people are still dying from the disease and new cases are still being reported.

Statistics released by the World Health Organization show that the total number of reported Ebola infections grew by 457, to 24,282, between Feb. 27 and Wednesday, when the newest statistics were made public. In the same 12 days, deaths from the disease grew by 376, to a total of 9,976 worldwide.

WHO’s top Ebola expert, Canadian Bruce Aylward, says the rate of infection is dropping so quickly that he expects new cases to be zero by summer in the three most severely affected nations, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

But he cautioned that the advances can still be reversed and said it’s critical that the world community as well as local residents remain “fully engaged” in strategies to contain the outbreak. He said new financial contributions to the Ebola response program had fallen faster than new Ebola cases, a worrisome trend. “$400 million in new funding is essential by June to keep this program on track,” he said.

“In terms of the biology of this disease, it should be possible to stop transmission by the middle of the year,” Aylward told reporters in Geneva this week. “That would be an appropriate target.”

Aylward said no new confirmed cases had been reported in Liberia since Feb. 19 and that the 58 new cases reported in Sierra Leone in the last week were “the lowest number since June.” Guinea, where the epidemic began in December 2013, also reported 58 new confirmed cases in the past week, but none in the last 10 days in the forest areas where the first case is believed to have occurred.

Still, he said it’s essential that local officials make certain that all cases are reported and that all contacts with people who fall ill are tracked to prevent new contagion. The biggest risk, he said, is that “the world stops looking at this disease and it stops looking at these countries.”

“It’s a bit of a crap shoot in terms of when transmission will be stopped,” he said.

Aylward said he recently visited Washington, Ottawa, and Brussels, and was headed Thursday to Tokyo, to drum up support. Aylward told McClatchy that USAID had earmarked an additional $30 million to the disease and that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had pledged $7 million.

WHO has more than 700 medical workers deployed in the affected countries and that more than 5,000 responders are active in 63 districts in the affected countries.