DAKAR, Senegal – Sierra Leone will soon see a dramatic increase in desperately needed Ebola treatment beds, but it's still not clear who will staff them, according to the top United Nations official in the fight against the disease.
Ebola has sickened more than 16,000 people of whom nearly 7,000 have died, according to figures released by the World Health Organization Friday.
Sierra Leone is now bearing the brunt of the 8-month-old outbreak. In the other hard-hit countries, Liberia and Guinea, WHO says infection rates are stabilizing or declining, but in Sierra Leone, they're soaring. The country has been reporting around 400 to 500 new cases each week for several weeks.
Those cases are concentrated in the capital, Freetown, its surrounding areas and the northern Port Loko district, which together account for about 65 percent of the country's new infections, Anthony Banbury, head of the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The critical gap right now in those locations are beds. It's as simple that: We need more beds," said Banbury, who spoke by telephone from Ghana, where the mission is headquartered. Only about 350 of some 1,200 promised treatment beds are up and running, according to WHO figures.
Five more British-built treatment centers will open next month, tripling the current bed capacity, according to the U.K.'s Department for International Development. One near the capital is already up and running.
Still, more beds alone are not enough.
"We're concerned that the partners who have signed up to operate the beds won't be able to operate them in the numbers and timeline really required," Banbury said. He is flying to Sierra Leone this weekend to address that problem.
Sierra Leone is also dogged by unsafe burials. The bodies of Ebola victims are extremely contagious and the touching of dead bodies might be responsible for as much as 50 percent of all new cases, Banbury said.
Cultural practices call for dead bodies to be washed, and women's bodies are supposed to be prepared by other women. But with very few women on burial teams, Banbury said that it appears people are washing the bodies of women before they call for them to be taken away.
Sierra Leone also needs more burial teams: WHO numbers show that only about a quarter of the teams the country needs are trained and working.
The United Nations had hoped that by Dec. 1, the end of the outbreak would be in sight: Two months ago, it said it wanted to have 70 percent of Ebola cases isolated and 70 percent of dead bodies being safely buried by that date.
That would have drastically reduced the two ways people get infected -- through contact with the bodily fluids of sick people and corpses.
World Health Organization numbers show they are significantly short of that goal and Banbury acknowledged that the overall goal would not be met. He stressed that tremendous progress has been made, and many places throughout the region would meet or even exceed the targets set.
"As long as there's one person with Ebola out there, then the crisis isn't over and Ebola is a risk to the people of that community, that country, this sub-region, this continent, this world," he said. "Our goal and what we will achieve is getting it down to zero, but there's no doubt it's going to be a long, hard fight."