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'No room for complacency' UN officials say, urging vigilance in Ebola fight as West Africa marks progress

20 January 2015 – One year has passed since Ebola began spreading in West Africa, ravaging villages and local economies, and yet, amid dramatic improvements in the three most affected countries, the United Nations can now report progress in the fight against the deadly virus, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced today as he urged the global community to help the region regain its footing following the unprecedented outbreak.

Delivering remarks to an informal UN General Assembly meeting on Ebola earlier today, the Secretary-General told a host of delegates and UN senior officials that his recent trip to West Africa convinced him that defeating the outbreak is ultimately possible but that the challenge remains in prevailing quickly and in minimizing overall suffering. This, he added, would demand 'collective determination and clarity of focus' by all international actors and national stakeholders.

The Secretary-General briefed Member States alongside General Assembly President Sam Kutesa, as well as Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), and the UN Special Envoy for Ebola, Dr. David Nabarro, who both joined in via videoconference.

"Strong national leadership with local community engagement and international support is slowing the incidence of news cases in many places," Mr. Ban said. "Through all our efforts, we have learned that our response must be regional in nature to avoid a risk of re-transmission."

According to the latest data from the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the three hardest hit countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – have all reported their lowest weekly total of new cases in months.

Guinea reported its lowest weekly total of new cases since 17 of August 2014. Liberia has had no confirmed cases nationally for the final two days of the week ending the 11th of January 2015. And Sierra Leone has recorded its lowest total of new cases since 31 August 2014.

However, despite peaking optimism and "massive support" from the international community, the Secretary-General also urged caution, noting that Ebola remained a versatile and fearsome adversary. Pockets of the disease, in fact, are alive in certain parts of West Africa with the western part of Sierra Leone still suffering from high incidences of transmission.

"The outbreak has taught us that there is no room for complacency," he continued. "Resources continue to be required to adjust the response, monitor chains of transmission and end the outbreak."

Mr. Ban warned that his Trust Fund dedicated to Ebola response efforts had been "depleted to fund priority gaps" and he called on Member States "to sustain the tremendous momentum" achieved so far in fighting the epidemic.

At the same time, he noted, post-Ebola recovery efforts would also have to be considered in an effort to help revive those communities debilitated by the disease. "The virus has eaten away at the fabric of society," he concluded, "at how people live, how they love, how they die and care for loved ones in their final days."

"We must, collectively, take stock of how we can build longer-term resilience to withstand future outbreaks."

Echoing this sentiment, Assembly President Kutesa lauded the Ebola response for having made "significant improvements" in reducing the spread of the disease through case identification and contact tracing, isolation and treatment, as well as safe burials and social mobilization. But, he warned, the rippling aftereffects of the outbreak were "not yet over."

"As we shift from the immediacy of the initial outbreak, we must now direct our attention to the region's long-term recovery effort," he explained.

Throughout West Africa, Mr. Kutesa continued, markets for essential goods struggle to remain open, children are missing critical school time, and 'critical' planting cycles have been missed.

"The impact of Ebola is being felt all the way down to the village level," he added.

From Freetown, Sierra Leone, Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in his first briefing to the Assembly, said that in the few weeks he has headed up UNMEER, he has travelled to all the affected countries and met with their respective presidents, as well as UN global response partners and religious leaders, Ebola survivors and care workers.

Over UNMEER's first 90 days in existence, significant progress has been made in slowing and containing the world's largest-ever Ebola outbreak. "Only three months ago, the epidemic was ravaging West Africa, with 4,000 people infected [in October] alone, and caseloads were doubling every three weeks," he said, but, thanks to the global response, the most dire scenario – that 10, 000 people would be infected every week by December ¬– the epidemic had been slowed.

"We are now beginning to see an overall decline in the number of new cases," he said, echoing the Secretary-General's feeling that the goal of ending Ebola in Liberia is within reach. At the same time, the Government is aware that it must not give in to complacency. While western areas of Sierra Leone were still seeing new cases, thanks to the response plan enacted by the Government, the virus was slowing its spread.

Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed said that a large part of the progress to date was due to the actions of the affected communities themselves. Indeed, the affected communities had changed their behaviours adjusted traditional practices that increased the likelihood of virus transmission, such as the washing of bodies of the deceased pre-burial. Further, thanks to national, regional and global health workers, thousands of West African now knew how to spot the symptoms of Ebola and knew what to do to prevent its spread.

"The concerted efforts of the international community, the United Nations and its partners have also made a crucial contribution," he continued, adding that the common thread exposed by the virus has been a truly global response to bring it to an end. "Donors have provided nearly $2.2 billion in humanitarian assistance and many countries have provided medical teams and logistical capacities to support the response," he added, thanking, particularly the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as well as the many national and international non-governmental organizations working on the front lines to tackle the virus.

"However…stopping this outbreak will still require significant efforts," he said, declaring that the philosophy that would guide his work from here on would be what he termed his "three c's" approach: recognizing the leadership of the countries affected; engaging communities; and coordinating effectively.

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