By Margaret Farley Steele
TUESDAY, Jan. 27, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- West Africa's Ebola epidemic has slowed significantly, but health officials are hesitant to say the lethal virus is no longer a threat.
Ebola infections have killed more than 8,600 people and sickened 21,000, mostly in the countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, since cases first surfaced in Guinea last winter. Infections in all three countries have dropped in recent months, with Liberia experiencing the greatest falloff, the World Health Organization and others have reported in recent days.
Sierra Leone currently has the highest rate of infection, with 118 people being treated for Ebola. But, that number is less than half what it was just two weeks ago, according to a New York Times report.
Only five people are being treated for Ebola in Liberia right now, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. That country experienced more than 300 new Ebola cases a week late last summer.
But it's too early to predict that Liberia will soon be free of Ebola infection, Liberia's director of Ebola response, Tolbert Nyenswah, told reporters. Just one undetected case can trigger a host of others, he said, adding that every known infection must be tracked down and followed to curb the spread of the deadly virus.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva last week, Dr. Bruce Aylward, the WHO's assistant director-general, credited a massive international investment of resources last fall with the turnaround.
This marked "the first time that the countries were in a position to stop Ebola," he said, according to the Times.
Aylward warned, however, that financial aid from the international community is waning as Ebola's threat is diminishing. Only $482 million has been committed so far for the next six months -- significantly less than the $1.5 billion needed, he said.
In her state-of-the-nation address Monday, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf blamed a weak national and international response for the explosion in Ebola cases last year. However, Liberia has withstood the challenge, she said.
"Our hospitals and clinics as well as our schools closed down. People ran away from their families and homes. Our economy was on the verge of collapse," Sirleaf said, according to published reports.
Liberia was the "poster child of disaster," she stated in her address.
"I can say today that despite all of this that our nation has remained strong, our people resilient," said Sirleaf.
Meanwhile, travel bans throughout the region are easing, which may indicate that neighboring governments believe the worst is over.
On Monday, Senegal announced the reopening of its border with Guinea, which has been closed since last August, the AP reported.