Hope for Ebola epidemic end in Liberia

Story highlights

  • New model published in PLOS predicts Ebola epidemic could end in Liberia between March and June
  • It's a different story for Sierra Leone, still struggling to scale up operations
  • The CDC cautions people not to become complacent

(CNN)There may be an end in sight to the Ebola epidemic, at least in Liberia.

That's according to a new model appearing in the latest issue of the scientific journal PLOS.
The authors predict that Ebola could be contained in Liberia between March and June of this year with a rapid decline in new cases following June 2015.
    The paper does caution that "continuing on the path to elimination will require sustained watchfulness and individual willingness to be treated," and experts were careful to point out that this hopeful news is only possible if the current rate of hospitalization continues and the same careful protocols are followed both in the hospitals and out in the community.
    Liberia -- along with Guinea and Sierra Leone -- is one of the three countries hit hardest by this epidemic. It was serious enough to be labeled a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" by the World Health Organization.
    According to the latest figures from WHO, there have been at least 8,331 Ebola cases involving Liberian citizens and 3,538 deaths since the start of the epidemic. That's with 48 new cases in just the past 21 days.
    WHO officials confirm that the number of cases in Liberia has been slowing significantly recently, halving every three weeks on average.
    Last week, fewer than 10 cases were reported nationwide.
    Since the epidemic started a little more than a year ago in a remote village in Guinea, the world has seen over 21,000 people infected and over 8,400 deaths, according to the latest WHO numbers. And those numbers are believed to be low, since there was widespread under-reporting of cases, according to WHO.
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    No matter what the numbers, the virus has a high fatality rate in Africa -- 70% by some estimations.
    Of the three countries hit hardest, Liberia has had the most success containing the epidemic.
    Initially the country saw some of the fastest epidemic growth, but it ramped up hospital capacity in late August 2014, according to the new study, and it continued to add spaces to care for patients.
    Liberia also rapidly moved to safer burial practices -- practices which, according to experts, had caused the rate of infection to increase.
    In an email to CNN, WHO said this model "is enormously encouraging but we emphasize that the job is not done until we are sure there are no remaining infections in the human population."
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    A report from the CDC last September estimated there could have been more than half a million cases by January with a total number of cases going up to 1.4 million, without proper precautions and protocols. That estimate used older data failed to account for the international commitment of troops and extra medical equipment to fight the epidemic.
    Sierra Leone which has been hit hardest by the epidemic has at least 10,124 cases and 3,062 deaths according to figures from January 11. Guinea, where this epidemic started, has had at least 2,806 cases and 1,814 deaths.
    Sierra Leone is still trying to scale-up their response to Ebola according to Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control. He also said that as the infection rate slowed down briefly, health care workers were "relaxing their grip" by not wearing protective clothing and not taking enough precautions.
    Speaking to reporters after his recent visit to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, Frieden said he saw "real momentum and real progress" in combating the virus, but he added "It's going to be a long hard fight."
    "The challenge," he said. "Is not to let up, not to be complacent and to really double down."