CDC director 'confident' world can get to zero Ebola cases

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Anthony Fauci (R) testify before a House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis, in Washington October 16, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday he was "confident" that the Ebola outbreak ravaging West Africa can be brought under control, but that "we are by no means out of the woods."

Speaking at a breakfast meeting in Washington with public health officials and lawmakers, Dr. Tom Frieden said it is vital that every case of the disease is eliminated.

"I remain very confident we can get to zero cases in this epidemic if we continue the way we're going and nothing unexpected happens," he said.

While Frieden said he has seen "amazing" improvement in attempts to battle the disease, he said the recovery is patchy and fragile and that it will remain so until every case has been eradicated.

"The largest, biggest risk is that it continues to fester and continues to spread at a low rate, which means it could flare up at any time," he said. "We have to get to zero and then stay at zero and that's going to require monitoring, surveillance."

The Ebola epidemic has killed some 8,371 out of an estimated 21,171 known cases of people infected in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea alone, according to the latest available figures from the World Health Organization.

Jeremy Konyndyk, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance said improvements are occurring at varying rates in different countries.

The number of new cases in Liberia have dropped from more than 30 a day to the single-digits, Konyndyk said. Sierra Leone is also beginning to turn the corner, though cases remain widespread.

The most troubling country, however, remains Guinea, partly due to community resistance to efforts to combat the disease.

"We have been working hard to identify additional people to go to Guinea," Frieden said.

While confident the present epidemic can be controlled, Frieden emphasized the need for improvements in health infrastructure in the region.

"We need those robust national systems," he said. "Ebola is somewhat off the headlines in the U.S., but it remains a terrible problem in West Africa."

(Reporting by Toni Clarke; Editing by Doina Chiacu and G Crosse)