Two months into the United Nations’ Ebola mission, glimmers of hope are emerging in West Africa: the international response has scaled up, burial teams have more than doubled, and Liberia and Guinea have met aggressive targets, according to a top official with the World Health Organization.
But now that modest gains are being made in the Ebola fight, a sense of complacency could become the biggest threat, said Dr. Bruce Aylward, the WHO official heading the operational response. After all, when it comes to Ebola, victory can only be measured by one number: zero.
“There is no room for optimism as long as you are dealing with an Ebola virus,” Aylward told reporters on Monday. “It’s not about low numbers . . . it’s about zero. We have got to get to zero.”
At a press conference in Geneva, Aylward said there was good news to report from all three countries at the centre of the epidemic, which has now infected nearly 17,000 people and killed about 6,000. Across the region, the epidemic is no longer growing at an exponential rate and the outbreak is even slowing down in some communities, he said.
Monday also marked the 60-day deadline for the “70-70-60” plan implemented by the U.N. Mission for Emergency Ebola Response (UNMEER), which aimed to isolate 70 per cent of patients and safely bury 70 per cent of infected corpses by Dec. 1 — a target that Guinea and Liberia appear to have met, Aylward said.
Sierra Leone is still struggling to control escalating cases in its western region, however, which is now the most worrying hot spot in the epidemic. “As far as meeting the 70-per-cent isolation target, we did not do well and could have done better,” retired Maj. Alfred Palo Conteh, who is running Sierra Leone’s Ebola response centre, acknowledged to The Associated Press on Monday.
He noted that 400 new beds are on their way to the country, however, and Aylward believes Sierra Leone could reach its 70-per-cent target in the coming weeks.
“We’re in a very, very different place than we were 60 days ago,” Aylward said. “You can catch up with Ebola, even on this scale, and that is a very, very important message.”
But many important gaps remain. Of the $1.55 billion U.S. needed for the emergency response, only about $920 million has been funded, Aylward said. This is forcing emergency responders to make “choices that are not optimal,” he said; for example, providing one new ambulance instead of four, or hiring experts for two months instead of the six “needed to really get this thing done.”
In this quickly evolving outbreak, another major challenge has been not only building treatment centres, but anticipating where they’ll be most needed. In Guinea, the outbreak has now spread to 17 prefectures — double the number of affected districts in early October — but treatment centres are still heavily concentrated in just two areas, Aylward said.
The outbreak’s wider spread within Guinea’s borders has also brought the virus closer to neighbouring countries such as Mali, which is now grappling with its first Ebola outbreak after a sick Imam from Guinea crossed over the border for treatment.
For Aylward, the biggest risk now is that the world will stop paying attention to Ebola and become complacent about the threat. Even a single missed case could offset any progress made; after all, that’s all it took to start this epidemic in the first place.
“We’ve seen how quickly this disease can turn around and expand again,” Aylward said. “A couple of really bad burials, a couple of really bad events . . . and your numbers can explode very, very quickly.”