The World Health Organization says the number of reported Ebola cases has surpassed 13,700, a jump of more than 30 percent since the last numbers were released four days ago.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general of the WHO, said the big increase in cases is likely because of previous under-reporting. The WHO has continually warned that its data are incomplete and may “vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak”, citing “shadow zones” — places where health care workers cannot go — and hidden burials as major drivers of under-reporting.
As of today, there have been 13,703 reported cases of Ebola, the organization tweeted, with 13,676 of those in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three most affected countries in this outbreak. The new figure represents an increase of more than 3,500 cases since Oct. 25, when the WHO reported a total count of 10,141. The fatality rate in the three countries at the center of the outbreak has remained consistently around 70 percent, Dr. Aylward said.
In a tiny piece of good news from the Ebola-stricken region, Dr. Aylward told a news conference that there is some indication that safe burials and education efforts in Liberia are helping bring the numbers down. He pointed to a few encouraging signs, including the opening of the first community care center in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, a smaller facility designed to isolate and provide basic care to potential Ebola patients.
Dr. Aylward said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the apparently slowing rate of Ebola transmission in Liberia, and the opening up of available treatment beds there. However, he cautioned against assuming that Ebola was coming under control there or in any of the three countries most affected by the disease: “Getting a slight decrease in the number of cases on a day-to-day basis versus getting this thing closed out is a completely different ball game.”
Several times throughout this outbreak, including in Liberia, officials have thought the disease’s spread was slowing, only to surge again later. They have attributed those false lulls to cases being hidden because people were too afraid to seek treatment, wanted to bury their relatives themselves, or simply weren’t in contact with authorities.
Outbreak is still outpacing global response
According to Dr. Aylward, the WHO hopes to increase the capacity of Ebola wards in the three hardest-hit countries from 1,047 currently to 3,100 in a total of 37 facilities by the end of November. Ultimately, Dr. Aylward has said, the WHO hopes to step up capacity to 4,700 beds in 56 Ebola treatment centers, but is still seeking foreign medical teams to staff them all.
However, recent data call into question whether current aid promises will be enough to bring the outbreak under control before a massive loss of life is suffered. In a study published last week, scientists used up-to-date epidemiological data from Liberia to model several different scenarios involving varying degrees of aid delivered at different dates. Results indicated that Liberia alone is in need of 4,800 treatment beds — more than the WHO’s goal for all three countries.
The researchers behind that study said the current global response is “grossly inadequate” and coming far too late, warning that unless international commitments are significantly and immediately increased, the Ebola outbreak will soon spiral into a crisis of unprecedented scale. “Perhaps most alarming is that, although we might still be within the midst of what will ultimately be viewed as the early phase of the current Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak, the window of opportunity for aversion of calamitous repercussions from an initially delayed and insufficient response is diminishing rapidly,” they wrote.
The WHO has warned that the outbreak is doubling in size every two to three weeks and could result in 10,000 new cases a week before the end of the year. And despite scaled-up efforts to control the outbreak, leading health officials have acknowledged that the virus is still far ahead of the global response — highlighting, once again, the importance of supporting the heroic health workers who have so courageously volunteered to brave the risks of the worst Ebola epidemic in history, putting themselves on the frontlines of the outbreak to protect those of us back at home.