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Ebola: An end in sight for this devastating epidemic?

Precise follows up our previous article on the Ebola outbreak with the possible good news that the epidemic could soon be over.

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Medical experts are showing signs of optimism that the devastating outbreak of Ebola may be coming to an end. For the first time since June 2014 the World Health Organisation says infection rates have slowed significantly.

In its latest report, which looked at infection rates up until January 25, it said, “there have been fewer than 100 new confirmed cases reported in a week in the three most-affected countries. This is a significant milestone, and is pretty convincing proof that the effort to slow the spread of Ebola has worked.”

The death toll from the world’s worst Ebola outbreak has reached 8,429 with 21,296 cases so far. The three worst affected countries are Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. But the notes of optimism arise from the reported number of cases at the end of last month – a combined total of 99 new transmissions in these countries, and only four in Liberia which is close to eradicating the disease.

That is the WHO’s next aim. It reported that, “The response to the epidemic has now moved to a second phase, as the focus shifts from slowing transmission to ending the epidemic. To achieve this goal as quickly as possible, efforts have moved from rapidly building infrastructure to ensuring that capacity for case finding, case management, safe burials and community engagement is used as effectively as possible.”

The issue of burials is a major concern. Under-reporting of Ebola deaths means not all burials are being done safely. According to the Centre for Disease Control, this is a lengthy process. Once someone has died of the disease they must be wrapped in three individual body bags. The body cannot be embalmed nor can an autopsy be performed. Then finally for the safe burial, cremation is recommended but if that cannot be done the body should be buried in a metal casket.

Ensuring that bodies are properly dealt with is one important step – and another more forward looking one is the roll out of two trial vaccines in Liberia. 12 healthcare workers have received them to date and it could be extended to cover all 27,000 volunteers if the medical community sees the right results coming through. This would then be carried out in a mass trial with 9,000 given one vaccine, 9,000 given another and the remaining 9,000 injected with a placebo.

In January the outgoing head of the UN team fighting Ebola Anthony Banbury said he believed cases of the virus would be brought down to zero by the end of 2015. The epidemic will only officially be over once there have been no new cases for 42 days (that’s twice the incubation period of the virus).

It will leave behind it a wave of destruction. Thousands of orphans, an entire generation left without a guide to the next step of their lives, communities decimated and in need of aid, healthcare systems overworked and lacking resources in both manpower and finance. Eradicating Ebola is just the first enormous step; recovering from its aftermath will take decades.