Some truly frightening numbers coming out of the CDC this week about the expected spread of Ebola.
There may be a million cases worldwide by the end of January. And the New York Times is reporting that authorities have yet to come clean about just how bad things are:
Since the beginning of the outbreak more than six months ago, the Sierra Leone Health Ministry reported only 10 confirmed Ebola deaths here in Freetown, the capital of more than one million people, and its suburbs as of Sunday — a hopeful sign that this city, unlike the capital of neighboring Liberia, had been relatively spared the ravages of the outbreak.
But the bodies pouring in to the graveyard tell a different story. In the last eight days alone, 110 Ebola victims have been buried at King Tom Cemetery, according to the supervisor, Abdul Rahman Parker, suggesting an outbreak that is much more deadly than either the government or international health officials have announced.
“I’m working with the burial team, and the first question I ask them is, ‘Are they Ebola-positive?’ ” said Mr. Parker, adding that the figures were based on medical certificates that he had seen himself. The deaths are carefully recorded by name and date in a notebook headed “Ebola Burials.”
A burial team supervisor who drove up with fresh bodies echoed Mr. Parker’s assertion. “Any body we collect is a positive case,” said Sorie Kessebeh. “All the bodies that we are bringing in are positive.”
Beyond the many worrisome trends in the Ebola epidemic seizing parts of West Africa — the overflowing hospitals, the presence of the disease in crowded cities, the deaths of scores of health workers trying to help — another basic problem has stymied attempts to contain the disease: No one seems to know how bad the outbreak really is.
The World Health Organization acknowledged weeks ago that despite its efforts to tally the thousands of cases in the region, the official statistics probably “vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak.”
Here in Sierra Leone, the government just finished an aggressive national lockdown to get a handle on the epidemic, ordering the entire country to stay indoors for three days as an army of volunteers went door to door, explaining the dangers of the virus and trying to root out hidden pockets of illness.
Still, the Health Ministry spokesman insisted that the epidemic was not as bad as the flow of bodies at the cemetery suggested.
The WHO has tried to calculate the number of infections, but have run into problems because of ther underreporting by most nations. The CDC tried to take that factor into consideration:
On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to release its own predictions for only Liberia and Sierra Leone — the two West African countries that recently have shown the steadiest and most alarming spread of cases.
The CDC calculations are based, in part, on assumptions that cases have been dramatically underreported. Other projections haven’t made the same kind of attempt to quantify illnesses that may have been missed in official counts.
CDC scientists conclude there may be as many as 21,000 reported and unreported cases in just those two countries as soon as the end of this month, according to a draft version of the report obtained by The Associated Press. They also predict that the two countries could have a staggering 550,000 to 1.4 million cases by late January.
The agency’s numbers seem “somewhat pessimistic” and do not account for infection control efforts already underway, said Dr. Richard Wenzel, a Virginia Commonwealth University scientist who formerly led the International Society for Infectious Diseases.
Other outside experts questioned WHO’s projections and said Ebola’s spread would ultimately be slowed not only by containment measures but by changes in people’s behavior.
The only sure thing appears to be that things are going to get much worse before they get better.