October 14, 2014 / 12:52 PM / 6 years ago

WHO says Ebola epidemic still spreading in West Africa

GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) - The Ebola epidemic is still spreading in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and projections show there could be between 5,000 and 10,000 new cases a week in early December, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

A WHO representative speaks with community leaders at the construction site of a Ebola Care Unit in Kamasondo Village, Port Loko District October 8, 2014. REUTERS/Christopher Black/WHO/Handout via Reuters

The death toll so far in the outbreak, first reported in Guinea in March, has reached 4,447 from a total of 8,914 cases, WHO Assistant Director General Bruce Aylward said. WHO said the number of cases in West Africa will exceed 9,000 this week.

While there are signs that rates of infection are slowing in some of the worst-hit areas, Aylward said the disease has now reached “more districts, counties and prefectures” than it had a month ago, and case numbers would continue to rise.

He stressed it would be “really, really premature” to read success into the apparent slowing numbers in some areas. Aylward told reporters at WHO’s Geneva headquarters that the projections for December “could be higher, it could lower but it’s going to be in that ball park.”

The published data could also be misleading because the number of known deaths is less than half the number of cases, but that gave a false impression, Aylward said. The actual mortality rate is about 70 percent, a figure that was consistent across the three worst-hit countries, he said.

Senior U.N. officials briefed the United Nations Security Council on the Ebola crisis on Tuesday.

Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Ebola mission in West Africa, said the WHO had advised that by Dec. 1 at least 70 percent of infected people must be at a care facility and 70 percent of burials done without causing further infection.

“If we reach these targets then we can turn this epidemic around,” he told the 15-member council via video link. “I’m grateful for the commitments by member states of civilian and military personnel, of material and of money, but I am deeply, deeply worried that all of this combined is not nearly enough.”

Banbury said a projection of some 10,000 cases a week by Dec. 1 meant 7,000 beds would be needed for treatment, but under current planning only 4,300 beds would be available by then and many of those would not have staff to operate them.

“To make up for the gap in beds, we must build about 2,700 beds in community care centres, or about 300 such centres. We will also need staff to manage the facilities,” Banbury said. “We need to go from about 50 burial teams to about 500 and we need to equip those teams with about 1,000 vehicles.”

The WHO has repeatedly said Ebola cases are under-reported in the three hardest-hit countries, and that understanding the scale and pace of the outbreak is crucial. Aylward said the WHO multiplies numbers from Guinea by 1.5, from Sierra Leone by 2 and from Liberia by 2.5 to get a more accurate picture.

Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Editing by Louise Ireland

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