A top U.S. health official who recently returned from West Africa said on Monday that sustained efforts to curb the Ebola epidemic there have made a “world of difference” in helping to stabilize the region where the deadly outbreak is centered.
Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, first visited the area in August as the countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were waging a losing battle against the deadly virus.
With little international support and a crumbling medical infrastructure, the countries were facing virtually unchecked virus transmission and resistance from residents who were slow to adopt disease prevention and safety measures.
If the situation had continued unabated, the CDC estimated that anywhere from 550,000 to 1.4 million people in the region could have become infected by the end of January 2015.
But after months of international support, led mainly by the United States, Frieden said the situation had noticeably improved in West Africa.
The surge in manpower, funding and resources has led to more treatment facilities and patient beds, better contact tracing to identify and isolate infected people, and better training in safe burial practices and patient care that has led to fewer infections.
The CDC projected that once 70 percent of Ebola patients were in treatment facilities or receiving proper care, the number of cases would decline about as rapidly as they had increased.
That’s exactly what has happened, Frieden said.
“When we got to a tipping point of isolation, care and safe burial, there was an exponentially fast decrease in cases. And we’ve seen that in many parts of all three countries,” Frieden told reporters on Monday.
On Monday, the World Health Organization reported 7,518 people have died from Ebola in the three West African countries and an estimated 19,340 have become infected.
Frieden said remote areas of Guinea have seen their cases plummet and more people survive their infections after France set up a treatment center. And because of their prevention efforts, Liberia – at least for now – “has the upper hand against the virus,” Frieden said.
But the embattled regions still have a long way to go to shake the deadly outbreak.
In Sierra Leone, which has at least 10 people die or be confirmed to have the disease each day, officials worry that Ebola could become even more unmanageable in the capital city of Freetown, where the situation “has been horrific,” Frieden said.
As the number of new cases comes down, some health care workers are “relaxing their grip” by not following safety measures to fight the spread of the disease, Frieden said. A nurse in Guinea recently contracted Ebola after giving a patient an intravenous line without using gloves, Frieden said.
Other West Africans won’t seek general medical care at local hospitals because of fear of contracting Ebola.
“I saw things that were both inspiring and sobering,” Frieden said of his recent trip. “Inspiring because of the momentum and real progress that we’ve made that leave me hopeful that we will get to zero” new infections. “And sobering because I remain realistic about how long and hard the road is going to be.”
Frieden said the hardest part of Ebola prevention efforts will be the next phase, which entails breaking the cycle of widespread transmissions, breaking the chain of infections by identifying and isolating patients and maintaining prevention efforts in Ebola-free areas.
He had no estimate for how long the fight against Ebola would take. But the world will not be safe until there were no new infections in the region, Frieden said.
Officials expect to begin vaccinating health care workers in West Africa next month as part of the testing phase for promising new Ebola vaccines, Frieden said.