Report: Ebola cases starting to drop in Liberia

I want to believe. Not sure I do, though.

“New case numbers are going down. Admissions into ETUs [Ebola treatment units] are going down…. The amount of bodies being picked up is going down,” says James Dorbor Jallah, the deputy incident manager at the National Ebola Command Center in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.

Data analysts, body removal teams, ETU managers and other health officials confirmed Jallah’s assessment. And any Liberian you pass on the increasingly busy streets of Monrovia will say they notice that the shrill peal of ambulance sirens cuts through the humidity much less often than it did two or three months ago, when Liberia’s caseload was exploding…

“I’m not only finding it to be true, I want it to be true,” said Dr. Moses Massaquoi, who leads case management for Ebola response and oversees the country’s ETUs…

Up north, in Lofa County, which was ground zero of Liberia’s outbreak, new Ebola cases have reportedly slowed to a trickle. “It’s dramatic,” Assistant Minister of Health Tolbert Nyenswah told BuzzFeed News. “There have been no new cases there in two weeks.” Right now, there are only 4 patients in a 150-bed ETU in Foya, the capital of Lofa County, according to internal health figures updated yesterday.

Do they have any reason to lie? Maybe — but even if they’re on the level, it doesn’t mean Liberia’s out of the woods. BuzzFeed notes that the number of new Ebola cases has dipped before, only to come roaring back as the infection spread to more populated areas. On the other hand, how many Ebola-free populated areas are left in the country? The virus has already hit the capital, Monrovia. If they’re seeing infections drop anyway, the decline might be durable.

As for why they might lie, look at some of the horrendous projections by western modelers for the spread of Ebola in west Africa. A new computer model sees up to 171,000 new cases (more than half of them fatal) in one Liberian county alone by December 15th unless international aid is scaled up — which is happening as we speak. With some improvements in detection and sanitation, all but 35,000 or so cases could be avoided, but that’s still 35,000 cases in a country that’s recorded fewer than 5,000 so far. (Emphasis on “recorded.” There may be many more unrecorded cases.) A CDC study cited by BuzzFeed imagined, if you can believe it, 1.4 million new infections by January without western intervention, a number dismissed by Liberian officials as essentially a fundraising ploy by western aid agencies. Hard to believe, with the projections so frightening, there’d suddenly be a drop over the last month or so. But if you’re a Liberian government official, worried that travel bans are about to imposed internationally and that the national economy will consequently collapse in a heap, maybe it’s in your interest to promote that belief. Then again, the more the perception takes hold that the crisis is easing, the less forthcoming the west may be with much-needed supplies. Why lie and risk having charities walk away if you secretly believe things are only getting worse?

Liberian fears of a travel ban are well founded, though. While anxiety about an epidemic in the U.S. has dropped among Americans over the past 10 days, support for barring recent visitors to west Africa from the United States is up by nearly 10 points over the same period:

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If — if — it’s true that there aren’t enough military and chartered planes to ferry international aid workers into the hot zone in Africa, then those epidemiological models about worst-case scenarios explain why the CDC and the White House are so resistant to a travel ban. The amount of aid that makes it there may determine whether there’s a seven-figure pandemic as soon as January. The more Liberians can reassure jittery westerners that conditions are improving, the less politically urgent a ban becomes. How bizarre, then, that Dr. Craig Spencer would break his self-imposed quarantine to go have some fun in NYC before he was past the incubation period. He was concerned enough for west Africa to risk his own life to help, yet now through his negligence he’s probably increased national support for a travel ban that would isolate the region.

Anyway, fingers crossed that the BuzzFeed report is true. It wouldn’t be the only good Ebola news today, if so: Nurse Nina Pham has reportedly fully recovered, leaving the number of Americans killed by the disease still standing at zero. Here’s some good advice from a local news channel in NYC. No poop-eating, New Yorkers, okay?