MONROVIA, Liberia – Liberia said on Saturday, January 24, 2015, it had just five remaining cases of Ebola, confirming it was close to eradicating an epidemic which has left thousands dead.
The worst outbreak of the virus in history has seen the west African nation and its neighbours Guinea and Sierra Leone register almost 9,000 deaths in a year, although experts believe the real toll could be far higher.
"We have five confirmed Ebola cases in Liberia as of today," assistant health minister Tolbert Nyensuwah told Agence France-Presse.
He said three of the cases were in the capital Monrovia, while the others were in the northwestern counties of Bomi and Grand Cape Mount.
"It means that we are going down to zero if everything goes well, if other people don't get sick in other places."
The announcement has not been verified by World Health Organization (WHO) officials, whose statistics often differ from the tallies of individual countries.
At the height of the epidemic in August and September, Liberia was reporting more than 300 new cases a week and overwhelmed aid workers were having to turn people away from swamped clinics, often to die in the streets.
But a huge international response has seen hundreds of US healthcare workers and troops flood into the country to train nurses and set up Ebola units, and the country reported just eight new cases last week.
Liberia counts patients who have tested positive for Ebola and those who have died but whose contacts are still being monitored for possible infection as live confirmed cases.
Nyensuwah said the five remaining cases included a woman who died last week and may have been in contact with 25 people in the Paynesville area of Monrovia, all of whom have been placed in quarantine.
The WHO said in its latest update on the epidemic that 8,688 people had died, among a cumulative total of 21,759 cases, since the epidemic broke out in Guinea a year ago.
The agency has recognised significant progress in beating back Ebola but warned on Friday that the crisis was still "extremely alarming".
There were 20 confirmed new cases in Guinea last week against 45 the week before, while the figure for Sierra Leone was 117 last week against 184 the week before.
The government in Freetown lifted quarantine measures imposed at the height of the epidemic Friday.
The nation of six million had restricted travel for around half its population, sealing off six of its 14 districts and numerous tribal chiefdoms.
President Ernest Bai Koroma pointed to a "steady downward trend" in new cases in recent weeks, adding that "victory is in sight".
'Very dangerous situation'
But the move came as the WHO warned that progress made so far could rapidly be undone unless $250 million was made available to continue the fight over the coming months.
"We are still in a very, very dangerous situation with this virus," WHO number two Bruce Aylward told reporters in Geneva.
"Especially now... that we are heading into the rainy season very, very soon. That's going to hit us in April, May, and that will make the response that much more complicated."
The relaxation – and the progress seen in Liberia – nevertheless marks huge progress against an epidemic which has seen commerce all but grind to a halt, with restrictions on movement halting crop harvests and sparking warnings of a looming food crisis.
British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) said on Friday its candidateEbola vaccine was expected to arrive in Liberia later in the day.
The batch of 300 vials will be the first to arrive in one of the main Ebola-hit countries and will be used in trials led by the US National Institutes of Health in the coming weeks involving up to 30,000 people.
Around 200 volunteers are already testing the candidate vaccine in smaller-scale trials Britain, the United States, Switzerland and Mali, with initial results showing it to be safe. - Rappler.com