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Without Innovative Action, Ebola Could Be Entrenched In West Africa


Right now the estimated number of Ebola cases in West Africa is around 6,000. Not a huge number as diseases go, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that number could rise to 1.4 million cases if the disease is left unchecked.


At a press conference the CDC director Tom Frieden said the international community's slow reaction in assisting the country's worst hit by the deadly virus helped create this doomsday-like prediction.


TOM FRIEDEN: For each month of delay there's a big increase in a number of cases and it gets that much more difficult to control the epidemic.

CORNISH: Frieden says new efforts, like the $750 million assistance plan announced by President Obama last week, could prevent this worst-case scenario.

FRIEDEN: A surge now can break the back of the epidemic.

CORNISH: NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff takes a closer look at the estimates and how they could play out.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: The CDC's forecast for Ebola is jaw-dropping. Right now we have nearly 6,000 cases and they're saying that could mushroom into more than a million cases by late January. That's shocking, right? Well, Bryan Lewis at Virginia Tech said he wasn't surprised at all by the numbers.

BRYAN LEWIS: I've been seeing numbers like this for many weeks where it's been, like, you know, this is really, really - could be really bad.

DOUCLEFF: Lewis is a computational biologist, and he's been using mathematical models to predict for the U.S. government how the epidemic will grow. His models have shown that cases are doubling about every two to three weeks. That's how you get to a million cases in January.

LEWIS: So this is just sort of a path we're on. If we were to just let go of the steering wheel and just keep on going this is probably where you would ultimately end up.

DOUCLEFF: But Lewis says that's not going to happen because aid is already starting to arrive in West Africa.

LEWIS: I think there's a lot of room for knocking down those numbers a lot by taking these sort of proactive steps that we're currently taking.

DOUCLEFF: In fact, the CDC study out Tuesday found one way to turn the tide on the epidemic - get 70 percent of sick people into isolation and treatment. And foreign governments are trying to help do this; they're starting to build new treatment centers. In the meantime, Lewis says health workers are going to need new ways to slow down Ebola that without these hospitals. One idea is to enlist the help of people who have survived the disease. Once you've recovered from Ebola, many doctors think you're immune to it.

LEWIS: Maybe one of the potential, you know, roles of survivors of this could play is to help people provide care to someone in the home.

DOUCLEFF: Or Lewis says they could help bury the dead, which is very dangerous because the bodies are highly contagious. Chris Dye at the World Health Organization agrees with Lewis. The epidemic isn't going to slow down without many innovative solutions.

CHRIS DYE: When there were relatively few cases we suspected that this epidemic could be controlled in the normal way. But it's become clear in recent weeks that we need a far greater response than that.

DOUCLEFF: Dye directs strategy for the WHO in Geneva. He says the agency's predictions for the epidemic are more conservative than the CDC's. They forecasted out only to November.

DYE: Our projections are for more than 20,000 cases by then.

DOUCLEFF: But Dye says their data have revealed another problem - the epidemic is so large now and so widespread there's a risk that Ebola could establish a long-term foothold in West Africa.

DYE: Our great concern is that this will be an epidemic that lasts for several years.

DOUCLEFF: If that happens then there would be a constant threat of Ebola spreading across Africa or even causing cases in Europe and the United States. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.