Ebola cases ‘could exceed 20,000’ as outbreak expands, warns WHO

Almost half of reported cases occurred in last three weeks; real number of infected could be two to four times higher

Infections from the deadly Ebola outbreak that has so far killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa “could exceed 20,000,” the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Thursday.

The U.N. agency published new figures showing that 3,069 cases have been recorded to date in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. Of those around half had resulted in fatalities.

But the outbreak "continues to accelerate," WHO officials said, with at least 40 percent of cases occurring within the past three weeks.

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Meanwhile the actual number of individuals struck down by the disease in hard-hit areas could be two to four times higher than the known cases, WHO officials added.

The latest figures do not include data from a separate Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is thought to be unrelated to the outbreak in the other countries. The United Nations on Wednesday said it had allocated $1.5 million to help the DRC fight its own problem.

The outbreak in West Africa has threatened to overwhelm the health care infrastructure of countries. A Medicines Sans Frontiers coordinator in the Liberian capital of Monrovia said the number of infected is “going up rapidly. Faster than what we thought.”

The spokesperson added: “The health care system has more or less broken down. Hospitals have closed, the clinics are closed, some of them have reopened but the staff is afraid to go back because they are afraid to get the disease.”

The risk of the disease spreading further afield has prompted pharmaceutical firms to increase efforts to find an effective treatment. Experimental drugs for Ebola have been used sparingly since the outbreak began, but none have been proved effective. Pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline has joined the race to develop a treatment to fight the disease, with U.S. health officials announcing Thursday that a human study of an Ebola vaccine would begin within a couple of weeks. 

As the outbreak expands, flight cancellations and travel warnings have followed. On Wednesday, France recommended that its citizens leave Sierra Leone and Liberia. Air France said it had temporarily suspended its three flights a week to Sierra Leone and on Tuesday, British Airways said it had suspended flights to Sierra Leone and Liberia.

British Airways and Brussels Airlines had already announced restrictions on their flights to West Africa.

Along with the updated figures, the WHO released a strategic plan aimed at halting the spread of the disease, saying it aimed to reverse the trend within three months and stop “all residual transmission within 6-9 months.”

“At the moment our leaders say that they would estimate six to nine months before this outbreak can be contained. And you really want to see no more cases of Ebola. That’s when you know it’s contained. So it’s a long haul still, it’s a long distance to go still, unfortunately,” Nyka Alexander, spokeswoman for WHO’s Outbreak Coordination Center in Conakry, Guinea.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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