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CDC: Ebola cases could reach 1.4 million by January. How likely is that?

The number of Ebola cases in west Africa could reach 1.4 million by January if dramatic interventions aren’t undertaken quickly, Centers for Disease Control officials announced Tuesday.

The CDC arrived at this “worst case” number through its new modeling tool that will allow governments and nonprofit groups to estimate the trajectory of the disease and predict the impact of prevention and treatment strategies.

“If conditions continue without scale-up of interventions, cases will continue to double approximately every 20 days, and the number of cases in West Africa will rapidly reach extraordinary levels,” the report concludes. “However, the findings also indicate that the epidemic can be controlled.”

The epidemic has infected around 5,800 people and killed about 2,800 people in west Africa so far — though World Health Organization officials say the numbers are probably far higher than official counts. The WHO has predicted that the total number of infections could top 20,000 by November.

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, CDC Director Tom Frieden cautioned that the data in the report is several weeks old – and interventions already underway will likely prevent the worst-case scenario from materializing.

In fact, the CDC’s new tool also demonstrates a second hypothetical scenario in which the epidemic begins to decrease and eventually die out in the months ahead – but only if 70 percent of people who have contracted Ebola receive treatment in medical facilities, “Ebola Treatment Units,” or, when those centers are full, in a non-medical setting where transmission risk is low.

Frieden said the modeling tool – and the numbers that come with it – should be cause for resolve rather than panic. “The model shows that a surge now can break the back of the epidemic,” he said. “It also shows there are severe costs of delay and that the importance of implementing tools rapidly can’t be overstated.”

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