The number of Ebola cases in West Africa could quadruple to more than 20,000 by early November in the absence of monumental efforts to slow the rate of transmission, according to a team of researchers working for the World Health Organization.
The report, outlined Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, also argues that if the disease isn’t adequately contained, it could become endemic among the populations in countries hardest hit by the outbreak — Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
“Without drastic improvements in control measures,” researchers say, “the numbers and cases and deaths from [Ebola] are expected to continue increasing from hundreds to thousands per week in coming months.”
The latest findings come as the WHO’s official count for the outbreak has surged past 5,800 people infected and 2,800 deaths. But as the agency’s researchers acknowledge in Tuesday’s report, “the true numbers of cases and deaths are certainly higher.”
The reasons behind that rapid acceleration are clear and daunting. According to researchers, every person who gets sick in Sierra Leone infects roughly two more people. Those “reproduction” rates are lower in Guinea and Liberia, but only slightly. That means that without forceful measures to disrupt transmission of the disease, the three countries combined could be facing more than 20,000 Ebola cases by November.
Even that harrowing number could rise exponentially by the beginning of 2015, as cases of the disease are doubling nearly every two weeks in Guinea, every 24 days in Liberia and every 30 days in Sierra Leone, according to Tuesday’s report.
An estimate developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but not yet released publicly found that the Ebola epidemic could infect 500,000 people or more by January.