Ebola Cases Could Reach 1.4 Million in Months, CDC Predicts

new article illustration

TUESDAY, Sept. 23, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Infections from the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and Sierra Leone could soar to 1.4 million cases by mid-January unless the global community mounts a rapid response to the West African crisis, according to estimates released Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This projection is based on a new CDC model that assumes people are being infected with Ebola at a geometrically increasing rate, and that there are 2.5 times more cases than are being reported, the agency said in its new report.

However, this worst-case scenario may be averted, given the international relief response to the epidemic during the past month, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said during a morning news conference.

The reported projections are based on numbers from the end of August, and since then the United States and other nations have stepped up their relief efforts.

"One of the things that's been so striking is how fluid things have been on the ground," Frieden said. "Even a week or two ago, I would have expected things to look differently than they do now."

Ebola cases in West Africa currently have reached an estimated 5,800 infections in people and more than 2,800 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

The new CDC model specifically focuses on the value of isolating Ebola patients to prevent spread of the deadly virus. The agency found that up to now, total Ebola cases are doubling approximately every 20 days in the two countries because people with the virus are coming into contact with healthy people and infecting them.

If seven out of 10 Ebola patients were isolated in their homes or a treatment center, the epidemic in both Liberia and Sierra Leone could be broken by mid-January -- a drastically different projection than the worst-case scenario, officials said.

"If you get enough people effectively isolated, the epidemic can be stopped," Frieden said. "Related to that, when you reach a higher enough number, the number of cases plummets rapidly, almost as rapidly as the exponential rise we're seeing now."

The CDC, the Department of Defense and USAID all are pouring resources and manpower into West Africa, joined by efforts from the United Nations and other countries, said Gayle Smith, special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director of the National Security Council.

"We think these things that were not fully in play are things that can contribute to bending the [epidemic's] curve," Smith said.

International relief efforts have been increased in recent weeks, but the virus continues to spread. Part of the problem: There aren't enough hospital beds, health workers or even soap and water in the hardest-hit countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Associated Press reported.

Last week, the United States said it would build more than a dozen medical centers in Liberia and send 3,000 troops to help. Liberia has been hit especially hard by the epidemic. Great Britain and France have also pledged to build treatment centers in Sierra Leone and Guinea and the World Bank and UNICEF have sent more than $1 million worth of supplies to the region, the news service said.

"We're beginning to see some signs in the response that gives us hope this increase in cases won't happen," said Christopher Dye, WHO's director of strategy and co-author of a study published online Sept. 23 in the New England Journal of Medicine, who acknowledged the predictions come with a lot of uncertainties.

Some infectious disease experts agreed that the worst-case scenarios could be overblown, and the back of the Ebola outbreak would be broken by changes in people's behavior, the AP reported.

"Ebola outbreaks usually end when people stop touching the sick," said Dr. Armand Sprecher, an infectious diseases specialist at Doctors Without Borders. "The outbreak is not going to end tomorrow but there are things we can do to reduce the case count."

Local health officials have launched campaigns to teach people about the symptoms of Ebola and not to touch the sick or the dead, the AP said.

More information

For more on Ebola, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.