World Health Organization officials on Wednesday said they see “glimmers of hope” in Liberia, the epicenter of the Ebola epidemic, with strong evidence that the rate of new cases is declining for the first time since the crisis began.
Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director-general in charge of the operational response, said during a news conference in Geneva that he is both cautiously optimistic and terrified about the news.
“It’s like saying your pet tiger is under control,” Aylward said. “This is a very, very dangerous disease.” He explained that “the danger now is that instead of a steady downward trend we end up with an oscillating trend where the virus goes up and down” because people let down their guard and areas that were becoming clear of the virus become reinfected.
Aylward said the recent decline in new cases “is real” and is confirmed not only by the scores of empty beds in many clinics, but also by a decrease in laboratory confirmed cases and in burials. As recently as a week ago, local officials expressed alarm that the virus was spreading exponentially. But Aylward said it appears that strategies such as tracing and monitoring those who had come into contact with Ebola patients, the adoption of safe burial practices and an aggressive public awareness campaign were working.
The important takeaway, he said, is that the “classic Ebola control strategies can work at scale.”
WHO officials also released new numbers about spread of the disease globally. The health organization has confirmed 13,703 confirmed cases so far, up from 9,936 on Oct. 19.
For many weeks now, a truism of the Ebola epidemic is that it moves on virus time while the world moves on bureaucratic time. Now there’s a twist on that phenomenon: The virus is shifting locations, fading in some places while flaring in others, and that is challenging global health officials to find a way to be more nimble in their response.