Liberia may be seeing a decline in the spread of Ebola, with falls in the number of burials and new admissions as well as a plateau in laboratory-confirmed cases, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.
“Do we feel confident that the response is now getting an upper hand on the virus? Yes, we are seeing slowing rate of new cases, very definitely,” WHO Assistant Director General Bruce Aylward told a news conference on Wednesday.
“We need to be careful here. This thing hasn’t dropped off the cliff like that. We’re seeing a reversal of that rapid rate of increase to the point that there seems to be a decline right now.”
He said there had been 13,703 cases in eight countries and the reported death toll, to be published later on Wednesday, was likely to be more than 5,000.
A jump of more than 3,000 in the number of cases since Saturday was largely due to the data being updated with old cases rather than new cases, he said.
Aylward said he would be “terrified” if wrong conclusions were read into his statement and Ebola was thought to be under control. “It’s like saying your pet tiger is under control.”
But he said that if current trends continued, the worst hit countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone should be able to “comfortably” meet a target to scale up Ebola-containment measures by December 1.
The WHO has been rushing to help organise bed spaces to take care of Ebola patients in treatment centres, but there were now around 100 beds empty in Liberia, he said.
“The single biggest mistake anybody could make right now is to think do we really need all those beds?”
In neighboring Sierra Leone, the second worst hit country, the number of cases was continuing to increase in some areas, including the capital Freetown, he said.
Meanwhile in the US, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved a recommendation by military leaders that all US troops returning from Ebola response missions in West Africa be kept in supervised isolation for 21 days.
Hagel described the new policy for putting returning troops in quarantine-like isolation as a “safety valve”.
In explaining his decision to place the troops in quarantine as opposed to civilian staff, Hagel noted that the military has more people in Africa helping with the Ebola effort than any other segment of the US government.
Just over 1,000 US troops are in Liberia and Senegal supporting efforts to combat the virus. Their numbers could grow to 3,900 under current plans.
The quarantine comes after the US revamped federal guidelines for doctors and nurses returning from treating Ebola patients in West Africa.
Some state officials, grappling with an unfamiliar public health threat, had called federal restrictions placed on people travelling from Ebola-affected countries insufficient to protect Americans.
In one case, Maine officials are seeking to legally quarantine Kaci Hickox, a nurse who treated patients in West Africa and was tested negative for Ebola.