There is a new urgency in the words now being used to describe the spreading Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa.
Last month Americans were reassured that the virus, while a terrible calamity for the people in the 5 African nations where it has appeared, poses little threat in the U.S. There have been no domestic cases reported and doctors took pains to point out that the virus is not easily spread.
To get the Ebola virus, they said, one must come in contact with the bodily fluid of an infected person. But events on the ground are making those reassuring words less assuring.
But since the end of August the virus has quickly spread in the countries where it has appeared, infecting more than 5,000 and killing more than half. At a news conference in Geneva, the World Health Organization's (WHO) Bruce Aylward warned the virus could balloon into a humanitarian catastrophe at the rate it is going.
Aylward said holding cases to the tens of thousands is now almost a best case scenario. Things will get a lot worse than that, he warns, unless the international community takes a more active role in treating and preventing the virus.
Past model useless
Dr. Thomas House, of Britain's University of Warwick Mathematics Institute, developed a model that incorporated data from past outbreaks that successfully replicated their eventual scale. But in the current outbreak, House says his model can't keep up.
"Out of all proportion and on an unprecedented scale when compared to previous outbreaks" is how House describes the current epidemic.
"If we analyze the data from past outbreaks we are able to design a model that works for the recorded cases of the virus spreading and can successfully replicate their eventual size,” House said. “The current outbreak does not fit this previous pattern and, as a result, we are not in a position to provide an accurate prediction of the current outbreak.”
Is the virus mutating?
What is making this outbreak so different and deadly? House sees a number of possibilities, including one that is chilling: a mutating virus. He says he doesn't know the reason, but does know this outbreak is different from ones that have gone before.
While health officials have taken pains to tamp down Ebola fears among the U.S. population, there is a new seriousness about it this week. This seriousness was on display in President Obama's trip to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta for a first-hand briefing, and his decision to dispatch 3,000 U.S. troops to impacted countries to help build and manage treatment facilities.
Question no one wants to ask
And Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, got everyone's attention with an Op-Ed in The New York Times in which he wrote what he contends many of his colleagues are loath to say in public – that the virus might have mutated and is being spread through the air, not just bodily fluids.
“The current Ebola virus’s hyper-evolution is unprecedented; there has been more human-to-human transmission in the past four months than most likely occurred in the last 500 to 1,000 years,” he writes. “Each new infection represents trillions of throws of the genetic dice.”
Health officials are understandably reluctant to openly discuss this possibility, House says, because they don't want to set off panic.
“But the risk is real, and until we consider it, the world will not be prepared to do what is necessary to end the epidemic,” he concludes.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the CDC has issued guidelines to U.S. health care facilities on the need to be prepared for managing patients with infectious diseases such as the Ebola virus. Just in case.