In a grim assessment of the Ebola epidemic, researchers say the deadly virus threatens to become endemic to West Africa instead of eventually disappearing from humans. "The current epidemiologic outlook is bleak," wrote a panel of more than 60 World Health Organization experts in a study published Tuesday by the New England Journal of Medicine
. "We must therefore face the possibility that Ebola virus disease will become endemic among the human population of West Africa, a prospect that has never previously been contemplated." In the absence of new control measures, the authors estimated that the total case load would exceed 20,000 by Nov 2. "The numbers of cases of and deaths from EVD are expected to continue increasing from hundreds to thousands per week in the coming months," the authors wrote. As of Monday, the United Nations health organization reported that out of a total of 5,864 confirmed and probable cases, 2,811 deaths have resulted.
"The true numbers of cases and deaths are certainly higher," the authors wrote. "There are numerous reports of symptomatic persons evading diagnosis and treatment, of laboratory diagnoses that have not been included in national databases, and of persons with suspected Ebola virus disease who were buried without a diagnosis having been made." When a virus is slow to mutate, as Ebola appears to be, the pathogen steadily wanes as the number of people who have developed immunity increases. With proper controls, experts say the virus would find it increasingly difficult to spread among the population until it eventually disappeared from humans and survived only in its so-called animal reservoir, which is believed to be a fruit bat. In this case however, epidemiologists fear that the virus could continue to linger in small pockets, extending its life in humans and potentially mutating in a way that makes fighting it more difficult. In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, and Dr. Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the epidemic has helped to degrade an already meager system of healthcare.