The United Nations' Ebola Emergency Response Mission will miss a Dec. 1 target for containing the virus due to escalating numbers of cases in Sierra Leone, the head of the agency has said.
The mission set the goal in September of having 70 percent of Ebola patients under treatment and 70 percent of victims safely buried. That target will be achieved in some areas, Anthony Banbury told Reuters on Monday, citing progress in Liberia.
"We are going to exceed the Dec. 1 targets in some areas. But we are almost certainly going to fall short in others. In both those cases, we will adjust to what the circumstances are on the ground," he said in an interview.
The death toll in the worst Ebola epidemic on record has risen to 5,459 out of 15,351 cases identified in eight countries by Nov. 18, the World Health Organization said last Friday. Almost all those cases are in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Banbury said the areas of greatest concern are in rural parts of Sierra Leone as well as the city of Makeni in the center of the country and Port Loko in the northwest and the capital Freetown.
To combat rural cases, health workers need to deploy rapid response units complete with specialists and equipment that can be flown by helicopter to remote villages at the first sign of the disease's spread, he said.
UNMEER was set up to provide coordination, policy and logistics rather than to treat patients. It needs more resources to halt Ebola as quickly as possible but the emphasis now is on allocating existing resources in the smartest way, he said.
"Earlier decisions about the need for rapid construction of large ETU's [Ebola Treatment Centers] were taken in a certain context where that's what made sense. Those efforts were to a large degree successful, but in the meantime the disease has spread," he said.
He said surveillance to prevent further cross-border spread of Ebola must be also improved, given the transmission from Guinea into Mali, where at least six people have died.
In the meantime, burial workers in the city of Kenema in Sierra Leone have begun dumping bodies in a public protest over the non-receipt of extra payment owed for the risk involved with their work handling Ebola victims, the BBC reported Tuesday.
The workers, who have gone on strike over the issue, left 15 bodies at Kenema’s main hospital, according to the BBC, one by the hospital manager’s office and two others by the hospital’s main entrance. The workers told the BBC that they hadn’t been paid the extra risk allowances for October and November that had been previously agreed to.
The BBC said the bodies have been removed but the hospital workers remain on strike. The Ebola virus remains present in the body after a victim has died, so burial workers must wear protective clothing, and health authorities say immediate burial is imperative to lessen the risk of spreading infection, according to the BBC.
Sierra Leone is one of the countries that has been worst affected by the current Ebola outbreak, with more than 1,200 deaths.
Further afield, a U.S. general in the force helping Liberia fight the Ebola epidemic reported Monday a dramatic improvement in the situation there and confirmed the cancellation of two planned treatment facilities.
Brigadier General Frank Tate, deputy commanding general of U.S. Operation United Assistance, said the drop in the number of cases in the country was all the more encouraging given recent improvements in reporting capacity.
He said new daily cases have fallen to around 20 from close to 80 when the operation was announced in September.
"It's a dramatic improvement," he told Reuters on the airstrip of a temporary U.S. logistics base in Dakar as dozens of U.S. soldiers boarded a Monrovia-bound Hercules aircraft.
"It was decided between USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and the Liberian government that two of the 17 Ebola Treatment Units was no longer necessary. They were canceled," he said.
Tate's comments echoed other positive signs from Liberia, once the epicenter of the worst known Ebola outbreak in history that has killed more than 5,459 people. Already, the United States has decided to trim the number of troops in Liberia from 4,000 to a maximum of 3,000 in December.
But Tate warned that authorities needed to remain vigilant.
"We can by no means declare victory. We have to continue pressure on this disease in Liberia as well as in Guinea and Sierra Leone and work on border security," he said.
Al Jazeera and Reuters