MONROVIA (Reuters) - An outbreak of Ebola cases in a western Liberia county threatens the country's goal of recording no new cases of the disease by the end of the year.

From Dec. 1 to 25, some 49 cases of Ebola were reported in Grand Cape Mount County. This included 27 confirmed cases, nine probable and 13 suspected, said Tolbert Nyensuwah, assistant minister for preventive services and the head of Liberia’s Ebola response.

The government had set a Dec 31 target for recording no new Ebola infections. The Grand Cape Mount outbreak makes hitting that target unlikely.

"This is a serious situation and we are going to Cape Mount today along with our international partners and UN agencies," Nyensuwah told a news conference late Sunday in Monrovia. "We are going there to open an Ebola Treatment Unit."

Grand Cape Mount is one of Liberia’s least populous counties, with just over 140,000 people. It borders Sierra Leone, where the deadly hemorrhagic fever is also raging.

Some 3,413 people have died in Liberia in the worst Ebola epidemic on record. In the three worst-hit countries -- Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea -- the outbreak has killed about 7,842 out of 20,081 cases, according to the World Health Organization. However, under-reporting means the number of deaths and cases is probably much higher, the WHO says.

Nyensuwah said the increases in new cases was caused by suspected and probable victims migrating into the county and by persistent denial of the existence of the virus by tribesmen.

"Cultural practices are still being done in Grand Cape Mount -- for example, burial preparation and bathing of dead bodies before burial," Nyensuwah said. "We have observed ... complacency and a high level of disregard of preventive measures that are laid down by the Ministry of Health."

Liberia has stepped up efforts to control the spread of the disease, including the building of treatment centers. Infections had declined in recent weeks, raising hopes that the outbreak may be nearing an end.

 

(Reporting by James Harding Giahyue and Alphonso Toweh; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Larry King)