UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The goal set by the presidents of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea of reducing the number of new cases of the deadly disease to zero by April 15 can be reached — but only if local communities stop unsafe burials and healing practices that involve human contact, the U.N. Ebola chief said Wednesday.
Dr. David Nabarro told the U.N. General Assembly that there are now 10 times fewer people diagnosed with Ebola each week than there were last September. But he said preventing the final 10 percent of infections — about 120 to 130 new cases per week — is probably going to be the hardest because it's like looking for a needle in a haystack.
The three presidents vowed to end Ebola in 60 days at a summit in Guinea on Sunday.
Nearly 9,200 people have died since the first Ebola deaths in rural Guinea in December 2013. The disease, which can be contracted only from the body fluids of an infected victim, has ravaged Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — all countries with weak health systems that were ill-prepared for such an epidemic.
Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who heads the the U.N. Ebola mission in West Africa, cited the remarkable progress in Liberia where the number of new cases has dropped from several hundred a few months ago to less than five per week.
But he said by video from Liberia that the number of new cases in Sierra Leone and Guinea have increased in February after declining in January.
Despite great changes in behavior in local communities, he warned that "denial, distrust and a lack of understanding (of Ebola) continue to create resistance in certain pockets and lead to dangerous practices that probably promote further outbreaks."
Nabarro said the "surge" in Sierra Leone and Guinea will require putting several hundred additional U.N. staff in local communities "to coordinate support for an intensive country-led and community-driven push to end this outbreak" by April 15.
"If people in the communities can reduce the extent to which they undertake unsafe burials and also unsafe healing practices, then we will get to zero because we won't have new chains of transmission being set up," Nabarro said. "If we've still got communities which are finding it difficult to engage, then it will be difficult to reach zero by mid-April."
Nabarro said there will be a conference in Brussels on March 3 to take stock of the outbreak, agree on the road to zero, identify gaps in the response, and start planning for recovery.