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The Ebola Epidemic Could Be Reaching A Turning Point

A health worker stands inside a medical tent in Monrovia, Liberia that forms part of a new American clinic to be used for Ebola treatment CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ABBAS DULLEH, FILE
A health worker stands inside a medical tent in Monrovia, Liberia that forms part of a new American clinic to be used for Ebola treatment CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ABBAS DULLEH, FILE

While global health officials say the Ebola outbreak that’s currently ravaging several countries in West Africa is far from over, there are an increasing number of positive signs that the deadly virus’ spread may finally be slowing.

For weeks, news outlets have been suggesting that the number of Ebola cases in Liberia — the country that’s been hardest hit by the epidemic — may be declining. Toward the end of October, BuzzFeed first reported that the admissions to Ebola treatment units were dropping, as were the number of dead bodies being removed. Hospitals in Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia, which used to have to turn away sick people because they didn’t have enough capacity to treat everyone, started reporting they had some empty beds.

By the beginning of November, Doctors Without Borders, the aid group coordinating most of the response to the outbreak, reported that infections are dropping in Liberia. World Health Organization officials said they were starting to see “glimmers of hope” in the epicenter of the outbreak. Last week, Liberia’s president lifted the state of emergency that was imposed as a measure of controlling the Ebola outbreak, and the country is preparing to re-open its schools.

And on Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed those reports, announcing that Ebola infections are on the decline in Liberia. “There’s been a substantial change in the trend,” CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said on a conference call with reporters.

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The CDC also recently dropped its worst case scenario for the current Ebola outbreak. In September, health officials estimated that as many as 1.4 million people could be sickened by the virus if the international community didn’t figure out a way to slow the outbreak — a bleak picture of what it might look like if the global health threat spiraled out of control. But on Wednesday, testifying before a Senate committee about the United States’ public health preparedness, Frieden said his agency doesn’t think those projections will “come to pass.”

The CDC head pointed to “very effective intervention with USAID, ourselves, the global community, and most importantly the countries and the communities most affected” to explain why there have been some progress in containing the unprecedented outbreak, which has so far claimed more than 5,000 lives.

There has also been good news to celebrate here in the United States, where Ebola has been at the forefront of most people’s minds over the past month as politicians sounded dire warnings about the crisis in the lead-up to the midterm elections. Just a few weeks ago, Americans were panicked about the potential of the spread of the virus within our borders. But all of the people who contracted Ebola here have survived, and effective isolation measures prevented them from passing the virus to additional people. There are now zero cases of Ebola in the U.S.

Still, health officials caution that the international community needs to continue focusing on mounting an effective response to Ebola, particularly as the epidemic is threatening the economies of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

“It’s like saying your pet tiger is under control,” Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director-general in charge of the operational response to Ebola, recently told reporters at a press conference about the progress in Liberia. “This is a very, very dangerous disease.”