The news: According to Reuters, "between 550,000 and 1.4 million people in West Africa could be infected with the Ebola virus by January 20, 2015, according to a report issued on Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)."
That's a fairly terrifying estimate. The New York Times reports that the CDC's alarming 1.4 million number is based on the 5,864 cases officially cited by the World Health Organization (WHO). Reuters notes that this number "is significantly underreported, and that it is likely that 2.5 times as many cases, or nearly 20,000, have in fact occurred."
"Extensive, immediate actions — such as those already started — can bring the epidemic to a tipping point to start a rapid decline in cases," the CDC told Reuters.
Exponential growth: Health officials have warned governments about Ebola's potential for rapid growth if the epidemic continued unchecked.
In a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, experts from the WHO and Imperial College wrote that West Africa's outbreak "could infect 20,000 people as soon as early November unless rigorous infection control measures are implemented, and might 'rumble on' for years in a holding pattern."
And according to new research published in Eurosurveillance, the peer-reviewed publication of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (the E.U.'s version of the Centers for Disease Control), the world could face 77,181 to 277,124 cases by the end of 2014.
The writing's on the wall — and the world is paying attention. In its first emergency meeting on a public health crisis last week, the U.N. Security Council declared West Africa's Ebola outbreak a "threat to peace and security." Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that the United Nations "will deploy a new emergency health mission to combat one of most horrific diseases on the planet that has shattered the lives of millions." And earlier in September, President Obama announced that the U.S. will send 3,000 troops to help tackle West Africa's Ebola outbreak as part of a new initiative to combat the spread of the disease.
With world governments taking the Ebola outbreak so seriously, health officials are breathing a sigh of relief — if a measured one.
“My gut feeling is, the actions we’re taking now are going to make that worst-case scenario not come to pass,” CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden told the New York Times. “But it’s important to understand that it could happen.”
Editors Note: Mar. 3, 2015
An earlier version of this article cited Reuters reporting, but did not include quotations around the cited passage. The story has been updated to fully attribute Reuters' language.