Medical workers, wearing protective suits, prepare prior to a burial for victims of the Ebola virus, in Monrovia, Liberia, on January 5, 2015
Monrovia (AFP) - The United Nations said on Saturday Liberia was dealing with just five remaining cases of Ebola, in the clearest sign yet that the country is nearing the end of the outbreak.
The worst outbreak of the virus in history has seen the west African nation and its neighbours Guinea and Sierra Leone register almost 9,000 deaths in a year, although experts believe the real toll could be far higher.
The UN, whose health wing the World Health Organization (WHO) collates Ebola figures, said in a statement that the number of confirmed cases now stood at five and had even dropped as low as one earlier this week.
"According to the WHO, the five cases are laboratory confirmed cases," Lisa White, a spokeswoman for the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, said.
She added that government figures for Tuesday had shown 21 suspected and probable cases -- but only one lab-confirmed case.
"WHO is supporting the government of Liberia in getting down to zero cases," she said.
"Now is the time to stay vigilant and make sure the good trend continues."
Assistant health minister Tolbert Nyensuwah confirmed the figure, adding that three of the cases were in the capital Monrovia, while the others were in the northwestern counties of Bomi and Grand Cape Mount.
"It means that we are going down to zero if everything goes well, if other people don't get sick in other places."
- Need to stay vigilant -
At the height of the epidemic in August and September, Liberia was reporting more than 300 new cases a week and overwhelmed aid workers were having to turn people away from swamped clinics, often to die in the streets.
But a huge international response has seen hundreds of US healthcare workers and troops flood into the country to train nurses and set up Ebola units.
The WHO said in its latest update on the epidemic that 8,688 people had died, among a cumulative total of 21,759 cases, since the disease emerged in Guinea a year ago.
The agency has recognised significant progress in beating back Ebola but warned on Friday that the crisis was still "extremely alarming".
In a further sign of progress, Sierra Leone lifted quarantine measures on Friday which had been imposed as reports of new cases began to spiral in the summer.
- 'Steady downward trend' -
The nation of six million had restricted travel for around half its population, sealing off six of its 14 districts and numerous tribal chiefdoms.
President Ernest Bai Koroma pointed to a "steady downward trend" in new cases in recent weeks, adding that "victory is in sight".
But the move came as the WHO warned that progress made so far could rapidly be undone unless $250 million was made available to continue the fight over the coming months.
"We are still in a very, very dangerous situation with this virus," WHO number two Bruce Aylward told reporters in Geneva.
"Especially now... that we are heading into the rainy season very, very soon. That's going to hit us in April, May, and that will make the response that much more complicated."
The relaxation -- and the progress seen in Liberia -- nevertheless marks huge progress against an epidemic which has seen commerce all but grind to a halt, with restrictions on movement halting crop harvests and sparking warnings of a looming food crisis.
British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) said on Friday its candidate Ebola vaccine was expected to arrive in Liberia later in the day.
The batch of 300 vials will be the first to arrive in one of the main Ebola-hit countries and will be used in trials led by the US National Institutes of Health in the coming weeks involving up to 30,000 people.
Around 200 volunteers are already testing the candidate vaccine in smaller-scale trials Britain, the United States, Switzerland and Mali, with initial results showing it to be safe.