By Tom Miles and Michelle Nichols
GENEVA/ACCRA (Reuters) - Liberia, the country worst-hit by an Ebola epidemic, may be seeing a decline in the spread of the virus, though the battle to contain the outbreak is far from won, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.
WHO Assistant Director General Bruce Aylward said the number of burials and new admissions had fallen and there was a plateau in laboratory-confirmed cases, though he cautioned against overly optimistic conclusions.
"All the data point in the same direction," he told a news conference. "Do we feel confident that the response is now getting an upper hand on the virus? Yes, we are seeing slowing rate of new cases, very definitely."
"We're seeing a reversal of that rapid rate of increase to the point that there seems to be a decline right now," he said.
The WHO comments were echoed by Jeremy Farrar, director of charitable foundation the Wellcome Trust. He too urged caution and said the next few weeks will be crucial to locking in potential gains made through increased international support.
"We're going through a very, very important phase. For the first time during this epidemic I think we will look on the last week as the week we put in place the jigsaw puzzle that changes the epidemic," he told Reuters.
"I'm not saying the epidemic has been affected at all yet. It hasn't. But I do think the pieces are in place now that if we live up to those ... it will be enough to turn this epidemic around," he said.
Almost 300 fewer people have died from Ebola in Liberia than previously thought, while more than 200 have been added to Sierra Leone's toll, the WHO said. The new data and an overall toll of 4,922 came after WHO cleaned its data.
MORE BEDS, MORE BLEACH
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said governments who made commitments to help fight Ebola should deliver on their pledges and those yet to commit should do so.
Power said she was encouraged by progress in the last couple of weeks and that the two most critical remaining challenges are to fill gaps in the delivery of people and resources and to fight fear, misinformation and stigma.
"There is a need for more beds, more bleach, more cash in order to pay community mobilizers or people who do safe burial," she told a news conference in the capital of Ghana after a visit to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
In one example of a response to the need, a 44-bed Ebola treatment unit was on Wednesday turned over to the Liberian government by the German-Liberian Ger-Lib clinic with the aid of German medical aid organization, Action Medeor.
The tent facility now increases the capacity of the 77-bed facility of ELWA 2 run by the government, said clinic head Margret Gieraths-Nimene.
Both Senegal and Nigeria have been declared Ebola-free, after passing two incubation periods of a total of 42 days. Cases have also been confirmed in Spain and the United States.
Aylward said he would be "terrified" if his Wednesday statement was understood to mean Ebola was under control.
"It's like saying your pet tiger is under control," he said. "This is a very, very dangerous disease ... A couple of burials go wrong, it can start a whole new set of transmission chains and the disease starts trending upward again."
But if current trends continued, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone should be able to "comfortably" meet a target to scale up Ebola-containment measures by Dec. 1, he said.
Last week, Mali became the sixth West African country to report a case of the disease. A two-year-old girl died after traveling by bus from Guinea with her grandmother, with at least one stopover, in the capital Bamako.
Aylward said the Mali government was working hard to track people who had contact with the girl, with 84 people being monitored and none showing symptoms as of early on Wednesday.
Separately, 40 senior European political, diplomatic and military figures urged the NATO alliance to deploy staff, ships and aircraft to help fight Ebola in West Africa.
Signatories including two former NATO secretaries-general and three ex-prime ministers said in two open letters the WHO and United Nations should ask for help from NATO, whose "unique capabilities ... could make a difference in this situation."
The letters to NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and WHO Director-General Margaret Chan were drafted by the European Leadership Network think tank in London.
(Additional reporting by Ben Hirschler in London, Matthew Mpoke Bigg in Accra, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and James Giahyue in Monrovia; Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Catherine Evans and Lisa Shumaker)