UNITED NATIONS (AP) - Close to 1,000 new cases were recorded in the last three weeks despite recent progress in fighting Ebola in West Africa and "the fight is far from won," the U.N. mission chief said Tuesday.
Ismael Ould Cheikh Ahmed told the U.N. General Assembly that "Ebola continues to be a global threat."
But he said "terrifying" and "credible projections" just three months ago that forecast up to 10,000 new cases per week by December never materialized because of the medical, logistical and financial response from countries around the world including almost $2.5 billion in humanitarian aid.
"The epidemic has turned, and we are now beginning to see an overall decline in the number of new cases," said Ahmed, the new head of the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response known as UNMEER.
Liberia has recorded the sharpest decline, from averaging over 300 cases a week in August and September to fewer than 10 cases per week today, he said by videoconference from Sierra Leone.
"With continued efforts and vigilance ... the goal of ending Ebola in Liberia is potentially within reach," Ahmed said.
While the number of reported cases in Guinea declined from 114 in the last week of December to less than 30 in the past week, he said many communities in rural areas are openly hostile and blocking health workers from entering. This means "a significant number of cases may go unreported," he said.
Sierra Leone, and especially its western region, is seeing the most new cases but the numbers are starting to decline from more than 330 in the last week of December to less than 140 in the past week thanks to concerted local, national and international efforts, Ahmed said.
While these figures are encouraging, he said "more than 930 new cases of Ebola and more than 800 deaths were recorded in the last three weeks alone," and much remains to be done to get to zero new cases.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the assembly's 193 member states "to sustain the tremendous momentum we have achieved," including by replenishing his depleted trust fund which spent over $100 million to help fight the disease.
He said the affected countries are starting to prepare "for post-Ebola life" and he has instructed the U.N. system to begin working, in parallel, on restoring essential services and planning for early recovery.
"We are focusing on access to health care for common illnesses, food security, reopening schools and ensuring care for orphaned children," Ban said.
U.N. Ebola chief Dr. David Nabarro said there will be a conference on March 3 in Brussels jointly organized by the U.N. and the European Union to assess the state of the outbreak, the response and recovery.
"We're looking to the end of the outbreak," Nabarro said, "to supporting swift recovery" which also means reviving markets and businesses, and "health systems being built back stronger in the affected countries and beyond."
Nabarro said lessons must be learned from the Ebola epidemic to "understand whether this outbreak could have been responded to quicker with less cost and less suffering."
The World Health Organization's executive board is holding a special session on Jan. 25 "to start looking at how future global health emergencies can be handled with better efficiency and effectiveness," he said.