GENEVA (AP) — The Ebola outbreak in West Africa eventually could exceed 20,000 cases, more than six times as many as are now known, the World Health Organization said Thursday.
A new plan released by the U.N. health agency to stop Ebola also assumes the actual number of cases in many hard-hit areas may be two to four times higher than currently reported. If that’s accurate, it suggests there could be up to 12,000 cases already.
Currently, about half of the people infected with Ebola have died, so in the worst-case scenario outlined by WHO, the death toll could reach 10,000.
“This far outstrips any historic Ebola outbreak in numbers. The largest outbreak in the past was about 400 cases,” Dr. Bruce Aylward, WHO’s assistant director-general for emergency operations, told reporters.
He said the agency does not necessarily expect 20,000 cases, but a system must be put in place to handle a massive increase in the numbers.
Separately Thursday, the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced it will start testing an experimental Ebola vaccine in humans next week. The vaccine was developed by the U.S. government and GlaxoSmithKline and the preliminary trial will test the shot in healthy U.S. adults in Maryland. At the same time, British experts will test the same vaccine in healthy people in the U.K., Gambia and Mali.
The vaccine trial was accelerated in response to the outbreak. Preliminary results to determine if the vaccine is safe could be available within months.
The outbreak is posing a unique challenge, Aylward said, because there are multiple hotspots in several countries, including in densely populated urban areas. Previous outbreaks had happened in a single, remote area.
In new figures, the agency said 1,552 people have died from the virus from among the 3,069 cases reported so far in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. More than 40 percent of the cases have been identified in the last three weeks, the U.N. health agency said, adding that “the outbreak continues to accelerate.”
The new plan for handling the outbreak aims to stop Ebola transmission in affected countries within six to nine months and prevent it from spreading internationally.
The plan calls for $489 million over the next nine months and requires 750 international workers and 12,000 national workers.
The goal is to take “the heat out of this outbreak” within three months, he said.