West Africa is six months into the worst Ebola outbreak the world has ever seen, and the virus is not letting up.
Of the 3,069 known cases in four countries, more than 1,552 people have died, the World Health Organization said Thursday. That's almost as many deaths as all previous known outbreaks combined, Reuters reports. The epidemic, the health agency said, only "continues to accelerate."
The virus, which attacks the immune system, has spread at an astonishing pace. More than 40 percent of the total number of cases reported since the outbreak began in March have occurred within the past 21 days, the agency said.
None of the affected countries"”Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone"”have ever seen an Ebola outbreak before. The nations have shut down schools, grounded flights, and quarantined entire towns. Their already fragile health infrastructures are beginning to buckle under the weight of new cases. Doctors Without Borders' newest treatment facility in the Liberian capital of Monrovia filled all 120 available beds just after it opened.
Health centers will certainly need more beds in the coming months. WHO forecasts that more than 20,000 people could become infected before the virus is contained. Another Ebola outbreak, this one with a different strain of the virus, was reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo last week. The WHO numbers do not include this latest outbreak.
"I wish I didn't have to say this, but it is going get worse before it gets better," Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday. The CDC has sent dozens of personnel to West Africa this summer to aid local health workers.
More than 225 health workers have been infected and almost 130 have died since the outbreak began, according to WHO.
There is no cure for Ebola, which causes fever, vomiting, diarrhea and, in severe cases, internal and external bleeding. There is no approved pharmaceutical medicine for the disease in any nation, but this year's record outbreak has hastened the search for successful treatment. BuzzFeed reported Thursday that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will begin testing a potential Ebola vaccine in development since 2003 in humans for the first time.
Earlier this month, two American health workers infected with the virus were flown from Liberia to the U.S. and given an experimental drug called ZMapp. A few weeks later, they walked out of the hospital healthy. Since then, the drug has been administered to other health workers; some have recovered, others have died.
For now, there's not much doctors can do for patients infected with Ebola other than alleviate some of their symptoms. The key to stopping an outbreak is containing it until the virus dies out. With new cases appearing every day, however, the end will not come easily.