The World Health Organization issued a dire call to action Thursday, warning the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could top 20,000 cases, six times larger than it is now.
Newest figures outline 1,552 deaths and 3,069 cases reported so far in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria. Officials say hard-hit areas may have two to four times the number of cases recorded, echoing Samaritan’s Purse testimony before Congress on Aug. 7.
The United Nations asked for 750 international health workers, 12,000 national ones, and $489 million over the next nine months to fight the disease. “This far outstrips any historic Ebola outbreak in numbers,” Dr. Bruce Aylward, WHO’s assistant director-general for emergency operations, told reporters. “The largest outbreak in the past was about 400 cases.”
While the outbreak has been gaining steam since early spring, about 40 percent of the cases have been recorded in the last three weeks. While Aylward said the agency doesn’t necessarily expect 20,000 cases, the accelerating epidemic calls for that kind of preparation. If all goes well, the world can take “the heat out of this outbreak” within three months, he said.
But aid workers say serious obstacles still exist to carrying out that plan. Airlines continue to cancel flights to the region, ignoring aid workers’ pleas. Air France announced Wednesday it is suspending flights into Sierra Leone. Aylward said the response effort is nearly “choked off,” because there aren’t enough seats on planes to adequately supply and relieve overworked health workers.
And those already on the ground continue to fall ill. A third Sierra Leonean doctor died Wednesday, and an American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worker has been evacuated to Atlanta for monitoring after working alongside someone who contracted the disease.
In Nigeria, a doctor is dead and his wife symptomatic after he treated a Nigerian who fled Lagos, where he was being monitored. The fugitive patient survived the disease, and Nigerian officials are still optimistic they can contain the country’s cases, now at 15.
But back in Sierra Leone, WHO announced it is removing its team from the city of Kailahun. A doctor who doesn’t work directly with patients fell ill and is receiving treatment in Germany. A WHO spokesman said the team was “exhausted,” and the agency feared stress could lead to mistakes in personal protection.
That’s why aid organizations say they need more doctors, not less. “The international surge of health workers is extremely important and if something happens, if health workers get infected and it scares off other international health workers from coming, we will be in dire straits,” said Christy Feig, director of WHO communications.
Meanwhile, a British nurse continues to receive treatment after his evacuation to London. His condition is unknown, but the London Hospital says he has received a dose of ZMapp, the experimental serum the San Diego manufacturer said had been depleted.
Two American missionaries, a Spanish priest, and three Liberian health workers are believed to have received the drug. The priest and one Liberian doctor died, but the Americans recovered and were released last week. The other Liberian workers have recovered and should be released Friday, officials there said.
It’s unclear whether the serum was effective. But as soon as next week, researchers at the University of Maryland will begin testing a new vaccine in healthy volunteers for immune response and side effects. The U.S. National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline announced the move Thursday. Similar tests will occur in Britain, Gambia, and Mali, though the vaccine won’t be available for distribution this year.
In the meantime, the United Nations’ World Food Program plans to send food to African residents and farmers who have lost access to markets, if not their fields. Food prices have risen as quarantines restrict commerce. The organization is asking for $70 million to meet those needs after increasing its estimate for those needing food in the coming months, from 1 million to 1.3 million.