West Africa could see up to 10,000 new Ebola cases a week within two months, the World Health Organisation has revealed in a grim new assessment of the crisis.
The death rate has also risen to 70 per cent for people who contract the lethal virus, according to figures released by the United Nations global health agency.
The WHO had previously estimated the death rate to be about 50 per cent per cent, already a high figure for a disease.
The agency increased its Ebola death toll tally to 4,447 people on Tuesday, nearly all of them in West Africa, from 8,914 cases. The true figure is thought to be significantly higher as many relatives have not reported infections and buried their dead because they fear that they will be put into isolation wards.
There have been about 1,000 new cases – confirmed, suspected and probable – per week during the last four weeks. Bruce Aylward, the WHO assistant director-general, said that if the world does not step up its response to the outbreak, “a lot more people will die” and there will be a huge need to deal with the spiralling numbers of cases.
The startling new figures give fresh urgency to calls for greater resources to tackle the crisis. Speaking at a news conference in Johannesburg, the head of Medecins Sans Frontieres in South Africa, Sharon Ekambaram, lamented that medical workers in the region have received inadequate assistance from the international community.
“Where is WHO Africa? Where is the African Union?” said Dr Ekambaram who worked in Sierra Leone in August and September. “We’ve all heard their promises in the media, but have seen very little on the ground.”
As the new assessment was made public, Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Facebook, announced that he and his wife Priscilla Chan were donating $25 million to the Centre for Disease Control Foundation in the to help fight Ebola.
“We need to get Ebola under control in the near term so that it doesn’t spread further … that we end up fighting for decades at large scale, like HIV or polio,” they said in a statement.
Dr Aylward said the 70 per cent death rate made Ebola “a high mortality disease” in any circumstance. The WHO target is to isolate 70 per cent of cases and provide treatment as soon as possible over the next two month in an effort to reverse outbreak, he said.
“It would be horrifically unethical to say that we’re just going to isolate people,” he said, noting that new strategies like handing out protective equipment to families and setting up very basic clinics was a priority.
Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia have suffered the brunt of the outbreak and Dr Aylward said WHO was very concerned about the continued spread of the disease in their densely-populated capital cities of Freetown, Conakry and Monrovia.
He said there was no evidence any countries were hiding Ebola cases but gave warning that countries bordering the affected area, including Ivory Coast, Mali and Guinea-Bissau, were at high risk of importing the disease.
“This is not a virus that’s easy to suppress or hide,” he said, noting there hasn’t been a huge amount of international spreading so far. “I don’t expect this virus to just go anywhere. There is exit screening in place and sick people won’t be moving.”
In Germany, an unnamed 56-year-old male UN medical worker infected with Ebola in Liberia died after four days in hospital in Leipzig. The man tested positive for the disease on Oct 6, prompting Liberia’s UN peacekeeping mission to place 41 other staff members under “close medical observation.”
The hospital’s chief executive, Dr Iris Minde, said at the time there was no risk of infection for other people, since he was kept in a secure isolation ward specially equipped with negative pressure rooms that are hermetically sealed.