WASHINGTON — Citing significant gains in fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, President Obama declared Wednesday that the international goal now is to prevent any new cases of the deadly virus in the afflicted region.
"We've seen major progress," Obama said during a White House meeting with the presidents of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to get a handle on the current situation.
He pointed out that last week there were fewer than 40 cases in the region, with no cases reported in Liberia. Ebola has killed more than 10,000 people in the yearlong-plus outbreak.
"Now we're focused on the shared goal, and that is getting to zero," he said.
The three presidents — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Alpha Conde of Guinea and Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone — were in the United States for meetings with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to help confront the economic crises created by the disease in their respective countries.
The World Health Organization last week said the outbreak still qualifies as an international emergency even though the number of cases has plummeted. At Ebola's peak last year, health officials were reporting hundreds of new cases a week.
"We can't be complacent," Obama said. "This virus is unpredictable, we have to be vigilant and the international community has to be fully engaged in a partnership with these three countries until there are no cases of Ebola in these countries."
On Capitol Hill, top government health officials echoed the president's message, saying that while recent efforts fighting Ebola have been encouraging, the threat is far from over,.
In testimony before a House panel, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden said the epidemic in Liberia is under control, and that a similar reduction in cases has been seen in Sierra Leone. Guinea has made progress, too, but still faces challenges, said Frieden.
National Institutes of Health infectious diseases chief Dr. Anthony Fauci said work being done on a vaccine is also showing promise. So far, more than 1,100 people in Liberia have been enrolled in the clinical trial.
"It is safe and it is inducing a response that one would predict would be protective, although obviously you need to have field proof of that," Fauci told lawmakers on a health appropriations subcommittee.
Associated Press writer Jennifer C. Kerr contributed to this article.