With Ebola Cases Down, Officials Worry Liberians Aren't Worried Enough
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We have news about Ebola this morning, and it is good news. In the hard-hit West African nation of Liberia, the number of cases of the deadly virus is dropping. Many wards for Ebola patients overtaxed for months are now virtually empty. But leading health experts are warning against complacency. While the overall number of cases is down, still 10 to 12 people in Liberia come down with the virus each day. From the capital, Monrovia, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Kevin De Cock is the doctor leading the Ebola response effort in Liberia for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He warns that the new enemy in the fight against the virus may be people letting down their guard.
KEVIN DE COCK: There's a great danger of complacency in a country such as this, where the population shows tremendous adaptability, as we have seen actually after the Civil War. There's a danger that when the epidemic becomes more invisible again, that somehow this becomes accepted as the new normal. Just a year ago, the situation would have been completely unthinkable.
QUIST-ARCTON: For months, Liberia ranked as the country worst-hit by the Ebola outbreak. Of more than 6,000 people killed by the virus, half have died in Liberia. The number of cases being reported fell from mid-September to mid-October and has since stabilized. De Cock says 10 to 12 new Ebola cases are currently being recorded each day, half of them in Monrovia, a city of more than a million. There are also reported pockets of the virus in the countryside.
DE COCK: We're seeing clusters erupting in different counties, somewhat unpredictably, about a third to a half of them apparently initiated by somebody from Monrovia, having traveled - and then local spread.
QUIST-ARCTON: CDC's De Cock says Liberia has made strides in trying to contain Ebola, which is evident in the drop in reported new cases. He says despite the hopeful signs, keeping up the battle is crucial.
DE COCK: The country with all of the international partners is getting better at responding to these clusters. But they're all their own little, mini outbreaks, and each of them needs to be addressed and extinguished. And this is continuing to happen, so this is an ongoing epidemic.
QUIST-ARCTON: De Cock says that remains a real concern. And that message is apparently getting through.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH CHOIR)
QUIST-ARCTON: Worshipers gathered for Sunday service at the First United Methodist Church in Monrovia. Ebola was on the lips of the pastor and a soulful singer who challenged the congregation to prevent Ebola.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH CHOIR)
QUIST-ARCTON: Hands were washed outside the church. There was no handshaking, no kissing or hugging among churchgoers dressed in their Sunday best. From the pulpit, Acting Pastor Julius JZK Williams told his assembled flock...
PASTOR JULIUS JZK WILLIAMS: Ebola has no break. Let us get out of our complacency. Amen.
QUIST-ARCTON: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says it's time to shift focus to ensure that communities take more responsibility and get more support. Liberia's president has set the ambitious goal of no new cases of Ebola by Christmas. CDC's Kevin De Cock says it's good to aspire, but everyone must remain vigilant so that Liberia does not roll back.
DE COCK: A couple of months ago, the disease was evident. The treatment units were full. The hospitals couldn't accept patients - health care workers dying. There were bodies in the streets. All of that is better. But one has to balance that with a false sense of security that this is all finished and it's over. And it's not over.
QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arctonin, NPR News, Monrovia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.