If the world doesn’t get the Ebola outbreak in West Africa under control quickly, the disease could become a permanent fixture in the region, spreading as routinely as malaria or the flu, the World Health Organization warns today in a new report.
Although some experts dispute that dire scenario, many agree that the virus could circulate for years if it’s not stopped soon.
The notion that Ebola could become endemic in West Africa — spreading routinely, rather than in sporadic outbreaks — is “a prospect that has never before been contemplated,” according to the report, published online in the New England Journal of Medicine.
There could be 20,000 cases by Nov. 2, with thousands of new cases per week, the report said. About 70% of patients are dying from the illness.
“We are concerned that without a massive increase in the response, way beyond what is being planned in scale and urgency … it will prove impossible to bring the epidemic under control,” wrote disease researchers Jeremy Farrar, of the Wellcome Trust, and Peter Piot, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in an accompanying editorial.
The Ebola virus has caused more than 20 outbreaks in the past four decades, mostly in remote villages in Central Africa. Although some outbreaks were severe, public health officials were always able to put a stop to them — even without effective treatments or vaccines — by quickly and methodically diagnosing patients, making a list of everyone those patients might have exposed and then monitoring those contacts.
The current outbreak appears to have begun the same way in the West African country of Guinea, with the first cases in December. The virus spread for three months, however, before public officials realized they were dealing with an Ebola outbreak. In contrast, doctors in the Democratic Republic of Congo took just days to confirm an Ebola outbreak after seeing the first cases.
In West Africa, Ebola has now infected at least 5,854 people — killing 2,803 — in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal, according to the WHO, which notes that the total number of cases likely is much higher, because many victims haven’t yet been counted.
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