Just how bad is the Ebola epidemic in West Africa?
By Jan. 20, 2015, there could be as many as 1.4 million people infected with the virus in West Africa, if current trends continue.
The report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the range between 550,000 and 1.4 million people, with the top estimate assuming that the number of cases officially reported thus far — 5,864 — is underreported by a factor of 2.5. That means for every case reported, there are an additional 1.5 cases not recorded.
A caseload in excess of 1 million would have devastating effects on the countries impacted. Health officials in Liberia have already painted a picture of a nation so devastated that they fear it might be on the verge of collapse, with the fallout from the spread of the disease now affecting every part of the nation of 4 million.
The International Monetary Fund said that Ebola has crippled the mining, agriculture and service sectors in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone, according to Reuters.
Ebola “is now spreading like wildfire, devouring everything in its path. The already weak health infrastructure of the country has been overwhelmed.”
That catastrophic view was echoed by U.N. special envoy to Liberia, Karin Landgren, who told the Security Council, ”Liberians are facing their gravest threat since war,” referring to two civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that left more than 250,000 dead.
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to the CDC in Atlanta to announce a multifaceted effort to fight the disease that could commit up to $1 billion in American funds.
In addition to bringing the nation’s attention to the catastrophe occurring in West Africa, Obama also exhorted the rest of the world to join the effort to control Ebola, warning that the failure to do so could endanger the entire planet.
“In West Africa, Ebola is now an epidemic of the likes that we have not seen before. It’s spiraling out of control,” Obama said. “It is getting worse. It’s spreading faster and exponentially … if the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected, with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us. So this is an epidemic that is not just a threat to regional security — it’s a potential threat to global security if these countries break down, if their economies break down, if people panic. That has profound effects on all of us, even if we are not directly contracting the disease.”
Calling the effort Operation United Assistance, the U.S. will commit as many as 3,000 members of the military in the entire effort, working through a command center that will be established in Liberia, the nation hit hardest by the disease. In addition, the U.S. will do the following: create an “air bridge” to more quickly transport health workers and medical supplies into West Africa; establish a staging area in Senegal to send out personnel more quickly; create a new training site to train thousands of health workers; deploy U.S. Public Health Service personnel to new field hospitals the U.S. is setting up in Liberia; and, through USAID, help distribute supplies and information kits to hundreds of thousands of families.
“Faced with this outbreak, the world is looking to us, the United States, and it’s a responsibility that we embrace,” the president said. “We’re prepared to take leadership on this to provide the kinds of capabilities that only America has, and to mobilize the world in ways that only America can do. That’s what we’re doing as we speak.”
The CDC projections do not include an analysis of how the U.S. intervention might affect the growth of the disease.
“Extensive, immediate actions — such as those already started — can bring the epidemic to a tipping point to start a rapid decline in cases,” the CDC said in a statement.