December 1, 2014 / 3:31 PM / 5 years ago

Sierra Leone lags in Ebola fight, but prognosis is 'very good'

FREETOWN/GENEVA (Reuters) - Sierra Leone does not yet have enough beds in treatment centers to isolate Ebola patients, but overall, the tide of the disease is being turned, the United Nations and World Health Organization said on Monday.

World Health Organization (WHO) Assistant Director General Bruce Aylward gestures during a news conference on the WHO response and challenges to control the Ebola outbreak at the United Nations in Geneva December 1, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

“The global response to the Ebola crisis has succeeded in turning this crisis around,” Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Ebola Emergency Response Mission, told reporters in Freetown. “But clearly there are places that are still in serious crisis.”

WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward said too few Ebola beds were available in western Sierra Leone, adding that the geographical spread of Ebola in Guinea, where many beds were concentrated in just a few big centers, was “a real concern”.

But the prognosis for Sierra Leone, which will open many new facilities in the next few weeks, was “very good”, he said.

Two months ago, the United Nations set a target of having 70 percent of Ebola victims buried safely and 70 percent of Ebola patients treated in isolation beds within 60 days. Those two goals are seen as the key to halting the spread of the epidemic.

Guinea and Liberia have met both targets, but some areas in Sierra Leone have still not done so, which Aylward said accounted for the continued spread of the disease there.

It would be a “stretch” to hit 100 percent of both targets by the end of the year, he said.

David Nabarro, who is heading the U.N. response to the Ebola epidemic, said the disease was “slowing down in some districts and increasing in others. The distribution changes from week to week. And the situation can worsen unexpectedly.”

“Our fundamental goal is to try to make sure that Ebola actually disappears and does not become a reality of life for people in West Africa or anywhere else in the world,” he said.

The World Health Organization said on Monday that some 5,987 people had died of Ebola in the three West African countries worst hit by the epidemic — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Aylward said the nature of the response would shift as the spread of the disease slowed. With beds and safe burials in place, the next problem was to overcome mistrust and traditional beliefs to ensure that people actually used them.

Meanwhile, thousands of locals have been mobilized to try to track down everyone who has had contact with each Ebola patient.

Such efforts helped shut down outbreaks in Nigeria and Senegal but the worst-hit countries still have deeply unreliable data, with Liberia erroneously adding about 1,000 deaths to the latest figures published at the weekend.

“We’re planning on a full-on six-month effort to really get this thing to zero,” said Aylward. “If you can bring rigor to this contact tracing, you can drive this thing to zero. You have to hunt the virus.”

Writing by Tom Miles; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Crispian Balmer

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