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The Ebola epidemic could be over by January — or worse than ever

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The CDC seems confident, but up to 1.5 million people could be infected

Ebola virus
Ebola virus

A fast, decisive response by the medical community could end the Ebola epidemic in January, says Tom Frieden, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is 1.5 million people infected in Sierra Leone and Liberia by January. Guinea wasn't included in the estimate because the cases there have varied in ways that can't be reliably modeled.

To end the epidemic in January, about 70 percent of people who are infected need to be treated at an Ebola treatment facility or at home to reduce disease transmission, according to CDC data. Right now, only 18 percent of Liberian patients and 40 percent of those in Sierra Leone are receiving that kind of care.

"Even poor clinical services can cut the death rate in half," Frieden says. Treatment for Ebola generally involves making sure patients stay hydrated. Hospital treatment does this using an IV; at home, families should give patients water and time.

The numbers are from an Ebola modeling tool that the CDC released today, based on data available at the end of August. Changes since August make the worst-case scenario unlikely, as the US and other countries have pledged aid to the West African countries. Supplies and more people are already on the ground. Given the changes since August, Friedan says, "I am confident the most-dire projections are not going to come to pass."

"Even poor clinical services can cut the death rate in half."Already there have been more than 4,000 confirmed cases and almost 2,300 confirmed deaths from the disease, but those numbers are almost certainly underestimates, according to World Health Organization data published by the New England Journal of Medicine. That report also voiced concern that Ebola might become endemic in the region. It estimated 20,000 would be infected by November.

Yesterday's report from WHO found that the number of Ebola patients is now greater than the number of hospital beds in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The CDC report suggested alternate methods of treatment, based at home or in community centers, where relatives are provided with the gear required to keep from getting infected. That means gloves and disinfectant, gowns and masks, according to an NPR report. The US government is sending 400,000 kits containing those tools to Liberia, to help care for patients who don't make it to a hospital.

"This is an unprecedented outbreak and every hour counts," said Gayle Smith, a senior director of the National Security Council, who was also on the call. "We want people to understand that there's data to guide the response."