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Rapidly mutating Ebola could infect up to 20,000, health officials say

A burial team in protective clothing removes the body of an Ebola victim from an isolation ward Thursday in Monrovia, Liberia, one of four West African countries battling the virus.
A burial team in protective clothing removes the body of an Ebola victim from an isolation ward Thursday in Monrovia, Liberia, one of four West African countries battling the virus.
Published Aug. 29, 2014

The Ebola outbreak sweeping through West Africa will get significantly worse before it subsides, infecting as many as 20,000 people, the World Health Organization said Thursday.

Adding more urgency to the crisis, new research detailed how the virus at the heart of the outbreak has mutated repeatedly in recent months, a fact that could hinder diagnosis and treatment of the devastating disease the longer the crisis stretches on. Five of the paper's 50 co-authors died of Ebola before they could see their findings about the sequencing of the virus' genome published.

Despite the bad news continuing to flow out of West Africa — of overfilled and understaffed treatment centers, of airlines suspending service into affected areas, of controversial quarantines, of body counts climbing by the day — Thursday also brought a sense that the international response to the crisis, widely criticized as slow and inadequate, is shifting into higher gear.

WHO issued a "roadmap" aimed at stopping the current Ebola outbreak within the next six to nine months. It includes dramatically scaling up efforts to contain the spread of the disease and treat those stricken by it, increased resources at hospitals and isolation centers, ensuring safe burials and more aggressive public awareness campaigns. The agency said it also will work to clear logistical "bottlenecks" that have made it difficult to get disinfectants, body bags, gloves and other medical supplies to the areas where they are needed.

The plan will cost an estimated $490 million over the next six months and require thousands of experts and local volunteers, the agency said. That doesn't include support for other essential services or helping West African health systems recover.

The WHO also offered sobering new numbers of Ebola's toll in West Africa. At least 1,552 deaths and 3,069 people infected have been recorded in the four countries battling the virus — Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria — though the actual totals almost certainly are higher.