The World Health Organization (WHO) now estimated that the West African Ebola epidemic could wind up infecting more than 20,000 before it is controlled. That dire prediction is just part of the bad news announced this week in the efforts to combat the deadly disease. The other part expands the efforts to Central Africa, where a new outbreak of Ebola has begun, forcing global health officials and medical charities already stretched thin fighting the disease in four western countries to set up operations there as well.
The disease death toll in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone is approaching 1,600. However, the WHO is now estimating that it will take nine more months to stop the epidemic. Efforts to isolate those infected or exposed have been stymied by cultural disconnects, public distrust of officials, and other issues. In fact, the WHO recently noted that they have been combating the disease since March, but more than 40 percent of the cases occurred in the last three weeks.
In the meantime, 24 Ebola cases were identified in Congo within the last three weeks, including 13 people who succumbed to the disease. Two samples sent to laboratories confirmed that the disease in now spreading in the Congo. However, it is a different strain of the disease than the one impacting West Africa. That means the Congo situation is a different epidemic and not expansion of the problems elsewhere on the continent.
Unlike the beleaguered officials in the Western countries, public health officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo are adept in dealing with Ebola. The first outbreak and five others have taken place in Congo. Previous outbreaks in the country have resulted in mortality rates of up to 90 percent.
Massive Effort Proposed
The WHO has outlined a road map to try control the epidemic. However, they cautioned that it could get worse before it gets better.
The organization’s plans involve at least 750 health workers from international organizations and an estimated 12,000 local support personnel. That may be difficult given the sizeable population of medical workers that caught the disease. That includes highly publicized cases of people from the U.S., Spain and England. To date, approximately 250 have contracted Ebola and at least 120 medical workers have died, which will undoubtedly exacerbate efforts to bring in more personnel.
A major part of the road map involves halting transmission in major cities and harbors. The latter is needed to bring in medical supplies, HAZMAT suits, food and personnel. Many airlines will no longer fly into the region because of Ebola concerns.
An assumption in the road map is that no other countries have identified cases. So, the new outbreak in the Congo could be an issue and expand the war against Ebola if it is not controlled quickly.
Efforts to Develop Vaccine
The news that the two sick Americans who received an experimental Ebola drug survived raised hopes. However, other patients who received the limited supply of the so-called ZMapp drug have died.
There are plans to begin testing an Ebola vaccine in the United Kingdom next month. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to allow testing to begin here too. The vaccine has protected primates from Ebola in earlier tests. Once given the green light, two groups of human volunteers will be given the vaccine in different dose amounts to gauge what is needed to create immunity.
While the hopes for a vaccine are good new for the future, it will be a long time before any vaccine can become a global prevention tool. Look at the fact that polio still exists in parts of the world even though a vaccine was established many decades ago. So, for now, the best hope in the war against the Ebola outbreak is to make sure it does not expand into any other new areas.
By Dyanne Weiss