Liberia appears close to beating Ebola with plans to reopen schools next month after the latest figures show the infection rate has dwindled to just three cases a day. The United States also plans to withdraw around half its 2,400 troops six months after the deadly virus struck claiming 3,400 lives.

Optimism has been fuelled by latest figures issued by the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (Unmeer).

They show the country had zero confirmed Ebola cases on 31 December and had just 91 cases in the last 21 days. This compares starkly with the 979 cases in the past three weeks in neighbouring Sierra Leone where, Unmeer says, “transmission remains intense”. US Democratic senator, Chris Coons, who has just returned from the country, says the epidemic has reduced “to a few embers” and many of the soldiers there are now “bored because they have accomplished most of their mission”. “We can’t declare mission accomplished and withdraw too early here, (but) we can bring home a thousand or more of these troops now,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation.

The incidence of Ebola has been declining in Liberia since mid-November with Médecins sans Frontières closing one of its hospitals on 10 December after recording no new patients in six weeks. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced at the weekend that schools would reopen on 2 February but did not specify whether the measure would apply to the entire education system. George Wuo, a director at the Education Ministry, said authorities were assessing around 500 schools across the country for reopening.

The president of Sierra Leone also used his New Year’s Day address to say that schools would reopen “soon” but with the disease still raging through the country, it is unlikely this will be on a national level. One big issue will be hygiene as many of the schools in either country do not have running water. “We are negotiating with our partners for the distribution of non-contact thermometers and buckets for hand washing to all schools in the Republic of Liberia,” Wuo said.

Medical authorities have also warned against complacency with an unexpected outbreak causing 27 confirmed infections in the west of Liberia between 1 December and 25 December. Ebola is now present in just four of the country’s 15 districts indicating the geographical reach of the outbreak in the country is now contained. There are signs that the incidence of Ebola in Sierra Leone is no longer increasing but infection levels remain a major concern to the international health authorities leading the fight against the virus.

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