Experts warn Ebola cases could reach one million by January 2015

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Experts have warned that the number of Ebola cases could reach one million by January if the outbreak is not handled properly.

Six months after the first case, there are an estimated 5800 current cases in West Africa. However, the number of cases is growing exponentially, despite the international effort to curb it. It is expected to reach 21000 within six weeks.

The problem facing UN agencies is the massive number of unreported cases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) noted that Liberia has been hit the hardest, but it is impossible to obtain true figures as those who die in the crowded slums of the capital are just thrown into the rivers.

The New England Journal of Medicine has reported that if the current course of events continues, the outbreak may continue indefinitely. Experts at the WHO have said that the idea of the disease becoming a permanent illness such as flu or malaria was not considered previously.

According to the assistant director-general in charge of emergencies at the WHO, Dr Bruce Aylward, the estimation of 21000 cases by November is the worst case scenario. He said that if control measures are ineffective, Ebola will, at some point, have infected all those people who have not already recovered or died from the virus and there will not be sufficient people to control the spread of the virus. He said that as the virus spreads, the caseload will make it difficult to isolate people.

According to Dr Heinz Feldmann, the chief of virology at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the virus will die out at some point, but no-one knows how long that will take and how many people will have to die before it happens.

The predictions have not considered response efforts. The US announced last week that it would build more than 12 medical centres in Liberia and send around 3000 troop to offer help. France and Britain have also pledged to build treatment centres in Guinea and Sierra Leone. UNICEF and the World Bank have already sent supplies worth in excess of $1m.

Experts state that it is difficult to assess whether the virus is becoming more infectious. They say there are too many issues involved. It may be possible that the virus has become more infectious than it was before, which may be the reason for the increased caseload, but it may also be due to health workers not being protected properly, or becoming careless due to being overworked, resulting in risky situations where the chances of being infected are increased. Scientists have detected hundreds of mutations in the virus thus far, but are not sure what it means as viruses are constantly evolving.

According to an infectious diseases specialist at Doctors Without Borders, Dr Armand Sprecher, it is a huge assumption to make that nothing will change in the outbreak response. He said Ebola outbreaks normally discontinue when people stop laying hands on those infected. He said the outbreak may not end tomorrow, but there are things which can be done to reduce the case count.

For patients who are not able to get to a hospital, there has been some treatment offered. There are groups handing out basic protection kits, which they admit are inadequate, but it offers some protection.

Image Credit: MONUSCO

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