As the infamous Ebola virus continues to spread across the African continent, world leaders are now sending aid in an attempt to stop the virus from escalating out of control.
But have they left it too late?
Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg thinks so. He told Germany’s Deutsche Welle that there is now little hope for the populations of Sierra Leone and Liberia and that the virus will only “burn itself out” when it has infected the entire population and killed five million people.
“The right time to get this epidemic under control in these countries has been missed,” said Schmidt-Chanasit. “That time was May and June. “Now it is too late.”
His chilling words have sent shock waves reverberating through health organisations around the world, and he has been heavily criticised for scaremongering. A coordinator from the German aid organization Welthungerhilfe, Jochen Moninger, said that the statements were “dangerous and moreover, not correct, ” though Moninger did concede that, in the case of Liberia, Schmidt-Chanasit’s assessment may be correct. The World Health Organization refused to make any comment regarding Schmidt-Chanasit’s claims.
These radical statements may be pure speculation at this stage, but what are the known facts so far in the Ebola reign of terror?
To date, there have been around 2800 deaths so far out of a total of 6000 infected. Typically, most Ebola victims are between are 15 to 44 years old, with men and women suffering at a nearly equal rates, say researchers. The case fatality rate, which is calculated using confirmed cases only, is 70.8%, though there is a lower chance of death – 64.3% – for those who can be admitted to a hospital.
The virus has steadily advanced across the western half of the African continent, claiming victims in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, and so far all attempts to halt its progress have been futile. A three day lock down has been enforced in Sierra Leona, with six million people confined to their homes in a bid to stem the unrelenting spread of the disease.
Of course, Ebola has a long way to go before it ranks up there with epidemical heavyweights such as malaria, smallpox and AIDS, which have claimed millions of lives. This latest outbreak is, nevertheless, the worst outbreak of the Ebola virus that has ever occurred and the worry is that if it remains unchecked, there is the potential for the death toll to spiral into the hundreds of thousands if not millions.
President Obama is giving the epidemic the highest priority, and intends to lead the world in sending aid to address the situation:
"Here’s the hard truth. In West Africa, Ebola is now an epidemic of the likes that we have not seen before. It’s spiraling out of control," Obama said. "If the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us."
His actions have been driven by recent a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report which stated that if there are no "additional interventions or changes in community behavior," then the number of Ebola cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone could rise to between 550,000 and 1.4 million by January. This suggests that by this time next year, the situation could be unthinkable.
The CDC figures were derived using a new forecasting tool, and the wide range has been set to account for the possibility that current statistics may be inaccurate due to many cases going unreported.
A United Nations health report stated that "There are numerous reports of symptomatic persons evading diagnosis and treatment, of laboratory diagnoses that have not been included in national databases, and of persons with suspected Ebola virus disease who were buried without a diagnosis having been made."
The CDC model does not factor in any remedial measures, such as the wave of international support that is being drafted in by governments worldwide, led by the United States which has sent troops, material to build field hospitals, additional health care workers, community care kits and vital medical supplies.
CDC Director Tom Frieden said that the model is merely projecting possible scenarios, but that these could possibly be mediated by help from other countries and that he is "confident the most dire predictions will not come to pass."
His colleague, CDC’s Dr Beth Bell, was slightly less optimistic, declaring that the outbreak is “ferocious and spreading exponentially”.
“If we do not act now to stop Ebola, we could be dealing with it for years to come,” she said.
Let us hope that it is not too late.