The World Health Organization said on Thursday that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could exceed 20,000 cases.
At least 3,069 people have been infected by Ebola so far in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria, but the WHO says it estimates the number of cases may be two to four times higher than currently reported. If true, there could be up to 12,000 cases of infection already.
"This far outstrips any historic Ebola outbreak in numbers. The largest outbreak in the past was about 400 cases," said Dr Bruce Aylward, WHO's assistant director-general for emergency operations.
At least 1,552 people have died from the virus since it was detected in Guinea in March. About half of those infected with Ebola in this latest oubreak have died.
Aylward said the agency did not necessarily expect 20,000 cases, but that preparations must be put in place to handle a large increase in numbers.
The figures do not include deaths from a separate Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, announced at the weekend. This has been identified as a different strain of the virus.
The WHO, accused by some aid agencies of reacting too slowly to the outbreak, has released a new plan costing $490 million over the next nine months. The operation would involve thousands of local staff and 750 international workers.
"It is a big operation. We are talking well over 12,000 people operating over multiple geographies and high-risk circumstances. It is an expensive operation," Aylward said.
He added that the goals were to take "the heat out of this outbreak" within three months, to stop transmission within eight weeks of a new case being confirmed, and to increase the preparedness of dealing with Ebola in those nations that share borders with affected countries.
Vaccine study fast-tracked
Medicine giant GlaxiSmithKline said on Thursday that an experimental Ebola vaccine is being fast-tracked into human studies. If results are good, it plans to produce up to 10,000 doses.
The US National Institutes of Health said it would start experimenting the vaccine in humans next week, starting with healthy adults in Maryland. British experts will test the same vaccine at the same time on healthy people in the UK, Gambia and Mali.
Ebola claims first Nigerian victim beyond Lagos
Also on Thursday, it was announced that a doctor had died from Ebola in southeastern Nigeria's oil industry hub of Port Harcourt. It is the country's sixth Ebola death, and the first victim confirmed outside Lagos.
jr/ksb (AP, Reuters, AFP)