The current Ebola crisis in West Africa is on pace to sicken more people than all other previous outbreaks of the disease combined, a U.S. health official said Thursday.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a congressional hearing that the outbreak is unprecedented in part because it’s in a region of Africa that never has dealt with Ebola before. He said the outbreak’s two main drivers are lax infection control during patient care and risky burial practices.
The outbreak can be stopped with tried-and-true public health measures, Frieden said, but it will be laborious. Any case missed or exposed person lost to follow-up could keep the outbreak going.
“If you leave behind even a single burning ember, it’s like a forest fire,” he said. “It flares back up.”
More than 1,700 people have been sickened in the current outbreak, which began in March. Nearly 1,000 have died, according to the World Health Organization.
On Thursday Frieden said there’s no way to know exactly how accurate that count is, or if some cases are going unreported.
“The data coming out is kind of a fog-of-war situation,” he said.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is spending $14.5 million to combat the Ebola outbreak and has sent a disaster response team to the area to assist workers, said assistant administrator Dr. Ariel Pablos-Mendez. The work includes sending tens of thousands of protective suits for health care workers.
In addition, CDC is working to open more treatment centers and expand proper Ebola testing, Frieden said.
Frieden didn’t rule out the possibility that a traveler could arrive in the U.S. infected with Ebola. But he said he is confident there will not be a large Ebola outbreak here. The CDC has put hospitals on alert for symptoms, and to check whether people are recent travelers so that they can promptly isolate any suspected cases until proper testing can be done.