LONDON (TheBlaze/AP) — With the rate of Ebola cases expected to increase exponentially in West Africa if more efforts to stop the virus spread are not enacted, a World Health Organization official said the outbreak is "going to turn from a disaster into a catastrophe." The U.N. agency warns the number of Ebola cases could hit 21,000 in six weeks unless more is done to curb the outbreak.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an even more shocking number Tuesday, saying in a worst case scenario, cases could reach 1.4 million by Jan. 20.
Since the first cases were reported six months ago, the tally of cases in West Africa has reached an estimated 5,800 illnesses. Of those, more than 2,800 have died.
This picture taken on September 21, 2014 shows beds inside the 'Island Clinic', a new Ebola treatment centre that opened in Monrovia. Liberia announced plans on September 21 for a four-fold increase in beds for Ebola patients in its overwhelmed capital Monrovia, as US troops arrived to help tackle the deadly epidemic. The announcement came two weeks after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the country, worst-hit in the regional outbreak, with more than 1,450 deaths, would soon face thousands of new cases. (ZOOM DOSSO/AFP/Getty Images)
In recent weeks, health officials worldwide have stepped up efforts to provide aid but the virus is still spreading. There aren't enough hospital beds, health workers or even soap and water in the hardest-hit West African countries: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Last week, the U.S. announced it would build more than a dozen medical centers in Liberia and send 3,000 troops to help. Britain and France have also pledged to build treatment centers in Sierra Leone and Guinea and the World Bank and UNICEF have sent more than $1 million worth of supplies to the region.
"We're beginning to see some signs in the response that gives us hope this increase in cases won't happen," said Christopher Dye, WHO's director of strategy and study co-author, who acknowledged the predictions come with a lot of uncertainties.
A health worker volunteer talks with residents on how to prevent and identify the Ebola virus in others, and distributes bars of soap in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Thousands of health workers began knocking on doors across Sierra Leone on Friday in search of hidden Ebola cases with the entire West African nation locked down in their homes for three days in an unprecedented effort to combat the deadly disease. (AP/Michael Duff)
"This is a bit like weather forecasting. We can do it a few days in advance, but looking a few weeks or months ahead is very difficult."
Watch Reuters report with WHO's latest dire estimates:
They also calculated the death rate to be about 70 percent among hospitalized patients but noted many Ebola cases were only identified after they died. So far, about 2,800 deaths have been attributed to Ebola. Dye said there was no proof Ebola was more infectious or deadly than in previous outbreaks.
The new analysis was published online Tuesday by the New England Journal of Medicine — six months after the first infections were reported on March 23.
WHO is just one of the groups that have attempted to calculate the epidemic's future toll.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release its own predictions for only Liberia and Sierra Leone — the two West African countries that recently have shown the steadiest and most alarming spread of cases.
The CDC calculations are based, in part, on assumptions that cases have been dramatically underreported. Other projections haven't made the same kind of attempt to quantify illnesses that may have been missed in official counts.
Principal of Tundunwada Secondary School Enenwan Essien checks a student's temperature for Ebola during an assembly in Abuja on September 22, 2014. Schools reopened across Nigeria today after an enforced extension to the summer holidays because of Ebola but some students will stay at home for a further three weeks. The federal government ordered schools to resume on Monday after initially postponing classes until October 13 because of the outbreak of the virus in the cities of Lagos and Port Harcourt. (AFP PHOTO/STRINGER)
CDC scientists conclude there may be as many as 21,000 reported and unreported cases in just those two countries as soon as the end of this month, according to a draft version of the report obtained by The Associated Press. They also predict that the two countries could have a staggering 550,000 to 1.4 million cases by late January.
The agency's numbers seem "somewhat pessimistic" and do not account for infection control efforts already underway, said Dr. Richard Wenzel, a Virginia Commonwealth University scientist who formerly led the International Society for Infectious Diseases.
Other outside experts questioned WHO's projections and said Ebola's spread would ultimately be slowed not only by containment measures but by changes in people's behavior.
"It's a big assumption that nothing will change in the current outbreak response," said Dr. Armand Sprecher, an infectious diseases specialist at Doctors Without Borders.
"Ebola outbreaks usually end when people stop touching the sick," he said. "The outbreak is not going to end tomorrow but there are things we can do to reduce the case count."
Local health officials have launched campaigns to educate people about the symptoms of Ebola and not to touch the sick or the dead. Previous Ebola outbreaks have been in other areas of Africa; this is the first to hit West Africa.
Sprecher was also unconvinced Ebola could continue causing cases for years and said diseases that persist in the environment usually undergo significant changes to become less deadly or transmissible.
Dye and colleagues wrote they expected the numbers of cases and deaths from Ebola to continue rising from hundreds to thousands of cases per week in the coming months — and reach 21,000 by early November. He said it was worrisome that new cases were popping up in areas that hadn't previously reported Ebola, like in parts of Guinea.
Healthcare workers, rear, clean Ebola virus prevention gear at the Hastings Police training school, used as a Ebola virus treatment center with over a hundreds beds in the village of Hastings, Sierra Leone, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Some in Sierra Leone ran away from their homes Saturday and others clashed with health workers trying to bury dead Ebola victims as the country struggled through the second day of an unprecedented lockdown to combat the deadly disease. (AP/ Michael Duff)
"The picture is too unclear at the moment," he said, noting the outbreak is continuing to double in size about every three weeks.
Scientists said the response to Ebola in the next few months would be crucial.
"The window for controlling this outbreak is closing," said Adam Kucharski, a research fellow in infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
A woman wears protective clothing during a tour of one of the Ebola Centers in Harare, Zimbabwe, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. Zimbabwe, which has not reported any cases of the deadly virus wreaking havoc in West Africa, is on high alert and has set up Ebola centers in order to screen people suspected of the virus. (AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)
What is so different about this record-setting epidemic compared to past outbreaks of the disease? According to another report by the Associated Press, previous outbreaks were in more rural communities and were therefore easier to contain and snuff out.
Experts said that this outbreak too would eventually burn itself out, but they called that a worst case scenario.
"The way Ebola has spread so far, it's hard to believe it will just die out," added Dr. Heinz Feldmann, chief of virology at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. "At some point it will, but how long is that going to take and how many people have to die for that to happen?"
At this point, it is unclear if this the virus itself has become more infectious, leading to the epic number of cases, but it is a possibility. Another factor that could be contributing to its spread could be health workers being overworked and making mistakes to not being properly protected.
This story has been updated to include more information.