Washington (AFP) - Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf paid emotional tribute to the American people on Thursday as the United States formally wound up its successful five-month mission to combat the west African nation's Ebola outbreak.
With Liberia now in recovery from the worst outbreak of the deadly virus in history, the visiting Sirleaf thanked the United States for coming to the region's aid in its hour of need.
"America responded, you did not run from Liberia," Sirleaf told US lawmakers in Washington, expressing the "profound gratitude" of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Liberia, once the country worst hit by Ebola, has registered 4,037 of around 9,600 deaths in the epidemic, which began in Guinea in December 2013.
At its height in the final four months of last year, Liberia and Sierra Leone were recording between 300 and 550 confirmed, suspect and probable cases a week.
It was in some of the darkest days in August when the Liberian leader said she reached out to US President Barack Obama and to the US Congress amid "grim and terrifying" international predictions that before the end of January at least 20,000 people would die every month.
But with US help, including a military force which reached 2,800 personnel at one point, there are now only one to three new infections each week in Liberia.
- 'Ran towards danger' -
"We are chasing the very last element of the chain of transmission we have," Sirleaf said, praising all the international and regional military and aid workers who "reached beyond their fears and ran towards the danger and not from it."
Sirleaf is due to meet Obama at the White House on Friday to discuss the Ebola response and the gruelling task of economic recovery.
The US military wrapped up its operation at a ceremony in Monrovia earlier Thursday, although some troops will remain for several weeks.
"The importance of the progress we see today means more than just the reduction in the number of new or suspected cases of Ebola," said mission commander Major General Gary Volesky.
"This progress is also about Liberians being able to get back to a normal way of life."
The Pentagon says around 100 US troops are to remain in the region to strengthen "disease preparedness and surveillance capacity" of local governments.
The latest data from the World Health Organization shows fewer than 400 new Ebola cases across the three countries in the three weeks to Sunday.
But while cases continue to arise from unknown chains of transmission in Guinea and infection remains widespread in Sierra Leone, the recovery is much further advanced in Liberia.
- Infections plummet -
Authorities in Monrovia reported just one new confirmed case nationwide in the week to Sunday -- a registered contact associated with a known chain of transmission in the capital.
Government spokesman Isaac Jackson said the number of patients being treated in Liberia's 19 Ebola treatment centres had dropped to as low as two last week.
"This is an indication that Liberia is making significant progress in the fight against Ebola," he told state radio.
When an American who travelled to Liberia died from the virus last year, public fears spiked in the US, and Washington officials scrambled to take measures to prevent any possible outbreak.
Volesky said the mission was originally expected to last up to 18 months, rotating thousands of troops.
The US forces, the vast majority of whom were stationed in Liberia, constructed Ebola treatment units, trained 1,500 health workers, provided logistical support for aid agencies and set up labs to test blood samples.
Although US troops in Liberia and Senegal had no contact with patients, the Pentagon has placed all military personnel returning from west Africa in quarantine as a precaution.
Officials so far have not detected the virus in any US soldier that worked in the region.