Health & Medicine

Health experts believe the current Ebola outbreak may infect 20,000 before it's over

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Residents of West Point celebrate the lifting of a quarantine by the Liberian government, in Monrovia August 30, 2014. Crowds sang and danced in the streets of the seaside neighbourhood of West Point in Monrovia on Saturday as the government lifted quarantine measures designed to contain the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

The Ebola virus has spread to yet another country — Senegalese officials say the West African nation has its first confirmed case of Ebola.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola virus could eventually afflict more than 20,000 people — almost seven times the current number of reported cases. The situation, they say, is dire.

Daniel Epstein, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization, says that it appears that the number of Ebola cases is going underreported. 

"This outbreak of Ebola is very different from previous ones," Epstein says. "It's in an area where three countries meet, and it's in West Africa, where there's never been Ebola cases before — all of the previous cases have been in other parts of Africa. The seriousness of this outbreak is that it has spread to cities in the three mainly affected countries, and the cases have been underreported."

 In response to the growing epidemic, the organization released an Ebola road map that is designed "to guide and coordinate the international response to the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa," a statement from WHO says. 

"We estimate that there may be as many as 20,000 cases of Ebola before we're able to control the outbreak," Epstein adds.

Though the number of cases could be on the rise, Epstein says that he is confident that containment protocols are working, noting that the percentage of people dying from the virus is lower than in previous outbreaks. As of right now, 52 percent of those infected have died, meaning that close to half — about 48 percent — have survived. 

"It's difficult to implement [containment programs], and that's why we've asked for more funds and more people on the ground," he says. "There's really a series of things we have to do to control the outbreak."

In order to control the spread of the virus, the WHO spokesman says the focus must first be on treating those infected, which is easier said than done.

"Fear is a huge factor — people are reluctant to report or go to treatment centers because they're afraid that they will die," he says. "If you go to a treatment center, and half the people who go there die, people think that it may be a better strategy to stay at home and try to tough it out. Obviously, that doesn't work. Your only chance of survival is to get supportive treatment: rehydration, and medicine for pain, at least."

Rumors about Ebola and its treatment continue to circulate throughout the region. According to Epstein, some believe consuming three large onions can help prevent or fight off the virus, among other things.

"We have to fight both the fear and misinformation that is circulating in many of these rural communities," he adds. 

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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