Liberia, once the epicenter of West Africa’s deadly Ebola epidemic, has just five remaining confirmed cases of the disease, a senior health official said on Friday, highlighting the country’s success in halting new infections.
“We have five confirmed Ebola cases in Liberia as of today,” said Deputy Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah, who heads Liberia’s Ebola taskforce.
“It means that we are going down to zero, if everything goes well, if other people don’t get sick in other places.”
Healthcare workers and others at high risk from Ebola in Liberia could be given an experimental vaccine as early as next week following the shipment of the first doses to Monrovia, according to the manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline.
The potential vaccine has been developed with unprecedented speed, but the rapid decline in Ebola cases in Liberia may make it hard to find out whether it works. Last week, there were only eight cases in the country, the World Health Organisation said on Thursday, down from a high of more than 300 a week in September.
GSK said a plane carrying some 300 initial doses of the vaccine was expected to arrive in Monrovia on Friday.
And the company hopes the first volunteer will be immunised in the next few weeks.
The chief executive of GSK, Sir Andrew Witty, said the pace of development was almost unparalleled and was comparable to only the development of a pandemic flu vaccine or new medicines for HIV.
The first study will compare the two experimental vaccines with dummy shots in hopes of proving whether either really protects against the Ebola virus, which has devastated Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone over the past year.
A second study of one of the vaccines is being planned for Sierra Leone.
There have been 21,614 cases of Ebola in this epidemic, and 8,594 deaths, according to the latest WHO figures. But crucially, the number of new cases is declining in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the countries worst affected.
Last week, Sierra Leone and Guinea both recorded their lowest weekly totals of confirmed cases since August, while Liberia had its lowest weekly total since June.
Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, has said he is “confident” the outbreak can be ended, provided “nothing unexpected happens.”
“The largest, biggest risk is that it continues to fester and continues to spread at a low rate, which means it could flare up at any time,” Frieden told health officials and lawmakers during a meeting in Washington last week. “We have to get to zero and then stay at zero and that’s going to require monitoring, surveillance.”