Addressing the nation last week, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf targeted December 25th, 2014, Christmas Day as a national goal for the possible elimination of the deadly Ebola virus from Liberia’s soil as she announced an extension of a curfew imposed as a result of the outbreak and the lifting of the State of Emergency.
Said Sirleaf: "This is why, in keeping with the public health law, and determined to enable the maintenance of the required vigilance, community mobilization and awareness, as well as sustain the gains; until we can start the progressive countdown of 21 days, until the national goal of zero-new-cases by Christmas is achieved all across the country, we will keep many of the previous measures in place with appropriate adjustments, consistent with the progress in our fight."
In the past few weeks, declining numbers across the country, with the exception of a few spots in River Cess, Montserrado and Grand Cape Mount counties, have given hope to many that Liberia could actually beat the outbreak in time for Christmas. But despite the optimism, the nagging reality, coupled with pockets of cases in some areas, have many exercising caution and the international community is taking notice.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, the World Health Organization (WHO) Assistant Director General for Polio and Emergencies who was in Liberia last week, urged Liberians not to begin relaxing the measures aimed at stopping the transmission of the Ebola virus disease that has ravaged Liberia and its two neighbors, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The reality, is according to Dr. Bruce Aylward, there are still traces of the virus popping up in a number of areas across the country and any change in attitude in relation to the Ebola fight could be devastating to the population.
According to the latest Ministry of Health and Social Welfare case tracker, new Ebola cases are springing up in Bong, Grand Cape Mount, and Rivercess Counties. Montserrado has seen at least 24 new cases, Rivercess 14, Grand Bassa 3, Bong 5 and 1 new cases in Cape Mount. In contrast, the rest of the country is seeing zero number of cases in the past weeks with Lofa, Sinoe, Grand Gedeh, Bomi, Sinoe, River Gee, Grand Kru, Maryland, Nimba, and Gbparpolu have all reported zero case of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) for the past four weeks, a positive signal that the Christmas goal is within reach.
Dr. Aylward agrees that Liberia stands a good chance to record zero new case in the coming months, but this will only become a reality if Liberians maintain those measures put into place by health authorities to fight the Ebola virus disease. More importantly, person to person transmission has dropped from 45% to 18%.
But even if Liberia achieves the feat, the situation in neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone holds the key to how soon Liberia would be declared Ebola free, a point Sirleaf alluded to last week when she said: "We also know that Liberia cannot be declared Ebola free until our neighbors are also Ebola free. This means that we cannot let down our guard nor can we afford to reduce our vigilance.
Amid the optimism many fear that the political atmosphere and people’s perception that the worst has passed Liberia is giving rise to complacency in some quarters, even as infections in the populous Bong County remained stagnant for the past three weeks. More than 2,800 of West Africa’s 5,165 Ebola deaths have been recorded in Liberia. In recent weeks, however, both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have reported that Liberia, once the fastest growing segment of the Ebola epidemic, is now holding steady at 6,878 cases of Ebola and 2,812 deaths. But caution they say is crucial to eradicating the disease from Africa’s oldest republic.
The lax of the State of Emergency and count down to the major Tubman Birthday celebration on November 29, observers say could prove pivotal for Liberia’s Ebola recovery and could serve as a major test of how well Liberians can cope with massive gathering and persistent instructions to avoid touching, hugging and crowded gathering during what is the biggest holiday in Liberia. Only 300 Liberians had been infected with the virus when the State of Emergency was put in place on August 7. Those numbers soon rocketed to an estimated 500 cases a day as the virus wreaks havoc across the country.
Today, report of zero cases in most counties is springing hope that light is at the end of the tunnel, a testament, Sirleaf, whose administration has been criticized for its initial handling of the outbreak, now says points a united effort from Liberians and the world which came to its aid. "We took on a fight, we appealed to the world, we appealed to our citizens, our citizens listened, and the world responded. Today we can all be proud of the progress."