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Citing progress in Guinea, UN Ebola response chief says disease 'still very much a crisis'

1 November 2014 – Visiting Guéckédou, Guinea, where the unprecedented outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is believed to have started, the United Nations envoy coordinating the massive global crisis response said that while there are now "basically zero" cases in the town, the challenge will be to replicate the strategy to defeat the disease throughout the country and the wider region.

In the middle of his third trip to Guinea this month, Anthony Banbury, head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), told reporters that he had visited Guéckédou, in an area in the southern part of the country, close to the Sierra Leone and Liberia borders, at the heart of where the crisis originally began.

"The first case of Ebola, in December 2013, was just down the road from here, so I was very interested and coming and seeing the situation on the ground for myself," he said, noting that "happily, the number of cases in Guéckédou has gone down a lot."

Indeed, he said, the transmissions are declining and the number of cases in the town is almost basically zero. While there are still cases outside the town, "there's been good progress made over these past months."

Asked if the strategy to halt the spread of the virus in the area was sound, the UNMEER chief said he did not believe there were any major gaps in Guéckédou. "All the elements of the proper response plan are in place," he continued, explaining that in the area there is an Ebola treatment unit; there are safe burials; there is contact identification and tracing; as well s community mobilization – "and we see the results of it".

This was reminiscent of what UNMEER had seen in Foya in neighbouring Liberia, where all those elements were in place, and what had been an area with very high infection rates – and significantly accelerated infection rates – now was seeing significantly decreasing infection rates.

"So we know the strategy we have works – the challenge now to is to spread it everywhere…the disease is," said Mr. Banbury, noting that there are other places close to Guéckédou where the situation was quite different and the virus was still spreading.

"We're going to go look at Macenta today…where there are significantly accelerating cases and we need to [put] more of an effort there into getting all the elements of the response together," he said.

As for his meeting earlier in the day with Guéckédou's prefect, mayor, other local officials, partners and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Mr. Banbury said that while the prefect was very pleased with the progress that had been achieved in reducing the number of cases, he emphasized that the Ebola outbreak is impacting every segment of society, every facet of life.

"People weren't going to the market anymore, people were afraid to come from outside of Guéckédou to sell at the market because they thought that Guéckédou was a centre of Ebola. So clearly the disease has had a dramatic impact on society here," said Mr. Banbury, adding however, that "the good news is the numbers are really coming down in Guéckédou."

Yet, there is more work to be done, he continued, noting that unfortunately, in neighbouring districts – Macenta, N'Zérékoré, Kaoune – "there are very significant numbers, increases in cases."

Commenting on his stop yesterday in the Guinean capital, Conakry, where he met President Alpha Condé, Mr. Banbury said he had been pleased to learn of the adoption by the President and the Government of a national plan to defeat Ebola – that was very much based on the plan that came out of the planning conference held two weeks ago in Accra, Ghana, where UNMEER is headquartered, with the key UN officials and leaders of the most-affected countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Now, he continued, the Guinea's national coordination structure is co-chaired by Dr. Sakoba and Dr. Marcel Rudasingwa, the Ebola Crisis Manager for UNMEER, "so things are really looking in good shape here. The disease is till very much a crisis, but the elements to defeat are being put in place – I'm very pleased to see it."

Mr. Banbury went on to say that his first stop after Conakry this morning was in Kissidougou, where the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is in the process of building a Forward Logistics Base (FLB).

Praising WFP for working so fast to put in place "this critical logistics capability", he said the Base would have storage facilities, as well as a helicopter landing pad, "including jet A-1 for the planes and helicopters to give good reach for the helicopters to move around and deliver supplies, as well as a number of 4X4 trucks".

Asked about his takeaway from field missions, Mr. Banbury said "you learn so much more than you can in a meeting room in the capital." Indeed, while official meetings provided vital opportunities to hear the concerns of Heads of State and partners had to say, "you learn much more here on the ground, whether it's talking to a local official, an NGO worker, a UN worker, some kid on the street – this is where you can really get the sense of what's happening."

According to UN World Health Organization (WHO) statistics on the Ebola outbreak, 13,567 cases and 4,951 deaths have been reported in the six affected countries of Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Spain, and the United States, along with two previously affected countries, Nigeria and Senegal. The cases reported are fewer than those last reported due mainly to suspected cases in Guinea being discarded, WHO said.

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