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How to Shut Down a Country and Kill a Disease

Oct 24 , 2014

With every passing day the absence of a powerful international response to West Africa's Ebola epidemic allows the horror to grow, pushing the nightmares in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea closer to the catastrophic worst-case scenario forecasted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: an estimated 1.4 million cumulative cases, with 980,000 dead, by Feb. 1, 2015 — a prediction so dire as to be impossible to imagine. For Liberia and Sierra Leone, the dire augury translates to this: In the absence of radical measures to stop the virus's spread, the two countries could witness a combined 10,000 new cases per week by the time Americans sit down for Thanksgiving feasts, and they could see some 14 percent of their populations perish by Easter.

What is to be done? 

A dramatic new study from a team of Virginia-based researchers dissects the current rates of the spread of Ebola and the likely impact of various strategies for controlling the epidemic. The results are deeply sobering. First, the virus is spreading very fast now, with each infected person in Liberia and Sierra Leone passing Ebola on to, on average, 2.22 others. And contrary to the experiences in 20 past Ebola epidemics (in which the majority of cases were transmitted in hospitals or during funeral preparations), the virus is now primarily spreading in the general population through everyday activities. This means that the strategies that were used to successfully control past Ebola epidemics — cleaning up the hospitals, quarantining infected souls within those newly sanitized facilities, and stopping traditional funeral practices — will not have the same significant impact in the current catastrophe. Therefore, according to these researchers, even if there were a miraculous treatment available right now, it would barely make a dent in the epidemic.

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