Liberia appears close to beating Ebola, with plans to reopen schools next month after the latest figures showed the infection rate has dwindled to just over four cases a day.
The US also plans to withdraw about half its 2,400 troops six months after the virus struck, claiming 3,400 lives.
Optimism has been increased by figures issued by the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (Unmeer). They show the country had no confirmed Ebola cases on 31 December and just 91 cases in the past 21 days.
This compares starkly with the 979 cases in the past three weeks in neighbouring Sierra Leone where, Unmeer says, “transmission remains intense” but the infection rate is moving to a national average of just over three cases per day, it said on its Facebook page on Monday.
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 the authorities were assessing about 500 schools across the country for reopening.
The president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, also used a New Year’s Day address to say schools would reopen soon, but with the disease still raging through the country, it is unlikely this will be on a national level.
Hygiene will be a big problem in both countries, as many of the schools 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 and 25 December.
Ebola is now present in four of the country’s 15 districts, indicating the range of the outbreak in the country has been contained.
There are signs that the incidence of Ebola in Sierra Leone is no longer increasing but infection levels remain a concern.
In the week to 28 December, the country reported double the number of cases in Guinea and Liberia combined. Freetown recorded 149 cases, the highest incidence in four weeks.
When Unmeer was formed in September, the World Health Organisation had predicted there could be as many as 20,000 cases a week by January unless the international community intervened.
The new head of Unmeer, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, warned the fight would not be over until there are no cases in the region.
“This is a global crisis. We definitely have a difficult time ahead of us, but we can achieve it,” Ould Cheikh Ahmed said. “We have no plan B, we have to get rid of this virus. This is within our reach, but we should not be complacent.”