GENEVA (AP) — The Ebola outbreak in West Africa eventually could exceed 20,000 cases, more than six times as many as doctors know about now, the World Health Organization said Thursday.
A new plan to stop Ebola by the U.N. health agency also assumes that in many hard-hit areas, the actual number of cases may be two to four times higher than is currently reported.
The agency published new figures saying that 1,552 people have died from the killer virus from among the 3,069 cases reported so far in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. At least 40 percent of the cases have been in just the last three weeks, the U.N. health agency said, adding that "the outbreak continues to accelerate."
In Geneva, the agency also released a new plan for handling the Ebola crisis that aims to stop Ebola transmission in affected countries within six to nine months and prevent it from spreading internationally.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, WHO's assistant director-general, told reporters the plan would cost $489 million over the next nine months and require the assistance of 750 international workers and 12,000 national workers.
The 20,000 figure, he added, "is a scale that I think has not ever been anticipated in terms of an Ebola outbreak."
"That's not saying we expect 20,000," he added. "But we have got to have a system in place that we can deal with robust numbers."
Aylward said the far-higher caseload is believed to come from cities.
"It's really just some urban areas that have outstripped the reporting capacity," he said.
Aylward also said the agency is urging airlines to lift most of their restrictions about flying to Ebola-hit nations because a predictable "air link" is needed to help deal with the crisis. Air France on Wednesday cancelled its flights to Sierra Leone. Aylward said the agency hopes airlines will lift most restrictions within two weeks.
Nigerian authorities, meanwhile, said a man who contracted Ebola after coming into contact with a traveler from Liberia had evaded their surveillance efforts and infected a doctor in southern Nigeria who later died.
The announcement of a sixth death in Nigeria marked the first fatality outside the commercial capital of Lagos, where a Liberian-American man Patrick Sawyer arrived in late July and later died of Ebola. On Wednesday, Nigerian authorities had said they not yet eliminated the disease from Africa's most populous nation but that it was being contained.
The doctor's wife is also in isolation now after she starting showing symptoms of Ebola, Nigerian Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu added. Morticians who embalmed the doctor are part of a group of 70 people now under surveillance in Port Harcourt.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.