The fight against Ebola in Liberia got some welcome news — with a little caution.
The number of new cases in the nation appears to be declining, with fewer burials, plateauing lab confirmations and less-cramped hospitals, the World Health Organization said. If the trend continues, the hardest hit nation will get a much-needed break.
The deadly virus has left at least 4,922 people dead mostly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
More than half of the deaths have been in Liberia, which has buckled under the weight of the epidemic, and even declared a shortage of body bags this month.
Too soon to celebrate
Though health experts expressed optimism, they warned that the latest observation does not mean Ebola is under control in Liberia. The virus has the potential to appear in waves, which can be mistaken for declining cases.
“The danger now is that we move, instead of a steady downward trend that gets us down to zero, that we end up with a oscillating pattern where the disease starts going up and down and areas start getting re-infected,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, an assistant director-general at the WHO.
“What gets the heat out of this thing and slows it down isn’t necessarily what is going to get us to zero.”
The numbers have been on the decline for about week, he said.
Not declining in Sierra Leone
Despite the good news in Liberia, Ebola infections have not slowed down in Sierra Leone, he said.
One of the goals is to educate the population to help reduce contact between Ebola patients and those who are not infected.
“With the concerted community engagement, with safe burials, with a big push on getting the right information out through the right channels, you can rapidly get the behavior changes that are critical to protecting populations,” Aylward said at a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday. “And that can translate into positive trends in terms of the disease.”
Scramble to develop vaccines
As the world reels from the outbreak, health experts are fast-tracking tests for various vaccines, and hope to have millions of experimental doses by next year.
There is currently no cure or vaccine for Ebola, which has infected nearly 14,000 people mostly in the three most affected nations.
Scientists racing to stop the epidemic are trying various experimental drugs on patients, including ZMapp and TKM-Ebola.
In addition to drug development, there’s a scramble to develop vaccines, with scores of companies working on experimental doses.
Health care workers in affected nations will get the first opportunity to try the experimental vaccines. At least 521 health workers have caught the virus worldwide. Of those, 272 have died.
Ebola is spread by direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.