By Rachael Rettner, Senior Writer
Published: 09/02/2014 03:50 PM EDT on LiveScience
The number of people infected with Ebola in West Africa will likely increase significantly over the next few weeks, according to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who just returned from the region.
"As bad as the situation is now, everything I've seen suggests that over the next few weeks, it's likely to get worse," Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said today (Sept. 2) in a news conference. "We're likely to see significant increases in cases."
The current Ebola outbreak, which is occurring in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, is the largest in history. It has killed at least 1,552 of the more than 3,000 people infected to date, according to the World Health Organization.
Although health officials know how to stop the spread of Ebola, the current response needs to be scaled up in order to end the outbreak, Frieden said. [5 Things You Should Know About Ebola]
"The challenge is that the number of cases is so large, the outbreak is so overwhelming, what it requires now is an overwhelming response," Frieden said. "The virus is moving faster than anyone has anticipated, so that's why we need to move fast."
The region needs more resources and more health-care workers and emergency managers, Frieden said. In one treatment facility that the director visited, many patients were lying on the ground because there were not enough beds for everyone, he said. In some areas, the teams in charge of burying the dead were finding it hard to keep up with the increasing number of dead bodies, he said. "I could not overstate the need for an urgent response," he added.
Frieden said the CDC is looking to have experts stay in the region for longer periods, because the longer people can stay, the more effective they will be.
Urgent action against Ebola is not just in the interest of the countries affected by the outbreak; the longer that the outbreak continues, the greater the likelihood that it will spread to new regions, Frieden said.
"This is not just a problem for West Africa. It's not just a problem for Africa. It's a problem for the world, and the world needs to respond," Frieden said.
There is also a very small chance the virus could mutate and become easier to spread, Frieden said. "That risk may be very low, but it's probably not zero. And the longer it spreads the higher the risk," Frieden said. So far, health officials do not have evidence that the virus is mutating.
Frieden said he did not feel in danger when he visited the Ebola treatment centers. "When I was inside the Ebola treatment unit run by MSF, I felt completely safe, because you're basically swaddled in protective gear," Frieden said, using the abbreviation for Médecins Sans Frontières (or Doctors Without Borders), a humanitarian aid organization assisting with the outbreak response.
A larger risk is when health-care workers don't know a patient has Ebola, because early symptoms of the disease can appear similar to other conditions such as malaria, Frieden said. So health officials have emphasized that anyone who might have Ebola should be treated as if they have Ebola, until proven otherwise, Frieden said.
Frieden said he remains confident that it's not too late to stop the outbreak. "What has worked to stop every Ebola outbreak will work here, if we can get it to scale."