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CDC Head: Key Interventions Have Slowed Ebola's Spread

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The fight against Ebola in West Africa took yet another sobering hit this week with the death of one of Sierra Leone's top physicians, Victor Willoughby. He became the 11th doctor in Sierra Leone to die from Ebola. In total, it's estimated that some 19,000 people have contracted Ebola and nearly 7,000 have died in the three worst hit countries - Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. We're going to check in on the state of the epidemic now with Dr. Tom Frieden. He's the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And he's been traveling through all three of those countries this week. Dr. Frieden, welcome back to the program.

THOMAS FRIEDEN: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And we have been seeing recently the numbers of Ebola cases coming down in Liberia - those numbers relatively flat in Guinea. What accounts for the relative success in those two countries?

FRIEDEN: Really there have been several key interventions. Probably the most important has been getting infectious patients into treatment, out of the communities, isolated in Ebola treatment units or other places as quickly as possible. In addition, they've expanded safe burials so that people who die from Ebola in the community are increasingly - have increasingly been buried safely.

One of the interventions that we at CDC have been doing along with our Liberian colleagues and others over the past two months are rapid investigation, isolation and treatment of Ebola in hotspots. We've done about 15 of these and that rapid detection and response has been critical for controlling it in the rural areas. One of the major challenges facing us going forward is the urban areas. There are still many communities in which Ebola is out of control.

BLOCK: As you've traveled around West Africa, Dr. Frieden, are you still meeting or hearing about people who deny that Ebola even exists?

FRIEDEN: There are plenty of misconceptions about Ebola. Today, I met with a very effective physician who's been working in some of the most difficult neighborhoods and he described the need just to talk with people and explain what's happened. For example, the people in that community were unaware that anyone survived Ebola, so he brought 12 survivors to meet with them - meet with community leaders. And the community leaders then were able to impart information to others and talk with others and begin to change that misconception.

BLOCK: Is there any one patient you've met in your time in West Africa this week that really resonates with you and you'll be thinking about a lot as you head back to the States?

FRIEDEN: I've met with survivors and every single one of them had family members who died. I met with a young man who was working as a medical technician. His father was a healthcare provider, and his father died from Ebola. Then he got Ebola, his wife got Ebola. And he was still, as many Ebola survivors are, somewhat stunned by the tragedy that had fallen on him, his community. And yet he was so enthusiastic about doing whatever he could to help stop Ebola.

BLOCK: What's your worst fear as you think about the course of this epidemic and what you've seen?

FRIEDEN: The worst-case scenario that I can see happening is that Ebola would become endemic. That means that it continues to spread if we let down our guard, if we relax our grip over the coming weeks and months. And that would mean that Ebola would be festering in different parts of each of these countries. And if that happens, it would be a very high likelihood that it would inevitably and gradually spread to other parts of Africa, and potentially in each new community, go through that horrific, rapid increase phase. I don't think that's going to happen. I don't think the world is going to let that happen. But I do think that's a risk if we don't continue to intensify our efforts.

BLOCK: OK, Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - he was speaking with us from Monrovia. Dr. Frieden, thanks very much.

FRIEDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.