* Number of cases possibly 2-4 times higher than reported
* 12,000 local staff, 750 international experts needed
* Nigeria reports spread to main African oil hub
* Air service suspension threatens aid operation - WHO
(Adds details, quotes)
By Stephanie Nebehay and Tim Cocks
GENEVA/LAGOS, Aug 28 The Ebola epidemic in West
Africa could infect over 20,000 people and spread to more
countries, the U.N. health agency said on Thursday, warning that
an international effort costing almost half a billion dollars is
needed to overcome the outbreak.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a $490 million
strategic plan to contain the epidemic over the next nine
months, saying it was based on a projection that the virus could
spread to 10 further countries beyond the four now affected -
Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
With the IMF warning about the economic effects of the
outbreak, Nigeria reported that a doctor indirectly linked to
the Liberian-American who brought the disease to the country had
died of Ebola in Port Harcourt, Africa's largest energy hub.
In Britain, drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline said an
experimental Ebola vaccine is being fast-tracked into human
studies and it plans to produce up to 10,000 doses for emergency
deployment if the results are good.
So far 3,069 cases have been reported in the outbreak but
the WHO said the actual number could already be two to four
times higher. "This is not a West African issue or an African
issue. This is a global health security issue," WHO's Assistant
Director-General Dr Bruce Aylward told reporters in Geneva.
With a fatality rate of 52 percent, the death toll stood at
1,552 as of Aug. 26. That is nearly as high as the total from
all recorded outbreaks since Ebola was discovered in what is now
Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976.
The figures do not include deaths from a separate Ebola
outbreak announced at the weekend in Congo, which has been
identified as a different strain of the virus.
Aylward said tackling the epidemic would need thousands of
local staff and 750 international experts. "It is a big
operation. We are talking (about) well over 12,000 people
operating over multiple geographies and high-risk circumstances.
It is an expensive operation," he said.
The operation marks a major raising of the response by the
WHO, which had been accused by some aid agencies of reacting too
slowly to the outbreak.
Medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) welcomed the
WHO plan but said the important thing was now to act upon it.
"Huge questions remain about who will implement the elements
in the plan," said MSF operations director Brice de le Vingne.
"None of the organisations in the most-affected countries ...
currently have the right set-up to respond on the scale
necessary to make a serious impact."
Early this month, the WHO classified the Ebola outbreak as
an international health emergency. Concerns that the disease
could spread beyond West Africa have led to the use of drugs
still under development for the treatment of a handful of cases.
Two American health workers, who contracted Ebola while
treating patients in Liberia, received an experimental therapy
called ZMapp, a cocktail of antibodies made by tiny California
biotech Mapp Biopharmaceutical. They recovered and were released
from hospital last week.
The virus has already killed an unprecedented number of
health workers and is still being spread in a many places, the
WHO said. About 40 percent of the cases have occurred within the
past 21 days, its statistics showed.
Previous Ebola outbreaks have mainly occurred in isolated
areas of Central Africa. However the current epidemic has spread
to three West African capitals and Lagos, Africa's biggest city.
The WHO said special attention would need to be given to
stopping transmission in capital cities and major ports.
Authorities in Nigeria announced the doctor's death in Port
Harcourt, the main oil industry terminal of Africa's largest
crude exporter. The doctor had treated a patient who evaded
quarantine after coming into contact with Patrick Sawyer - a
U.S. citizen who died in Lagos after flying in from Liberia last
Health Ministry spokesman Dan Nwomeh wrote in his Twitter
feed that 70 people were now under surveillance in Port
Harcourt, which is home to foreigners working for international
A spokesman for leading operator Royal Dutch Shell
said in London that the firm was "liaising with health
authorities on the steps being taken to contain the disease".
Oil traders in Europe said insurance premiums for Nigerian
cargoes had gone up slightly, but otherwise business was
continuing as normal.
Analysts urged caution. "While major disruption to oil
production appears unlikely, any further spread of Ebola ... is
likely to cause serious operational challenges," said Roddy
Barclay of the Control Risks consultancy.
According to new figures released on Thursday, Nigeria has
recorded 17 cases, including six deaths, from Ebola, since
Sawyer collapsed upon arrival at Lagos airport in late July.
While Nigeria has yet to suffer any major economic
disruption, the International Monetary Fund said the smaller,
poorer nations at the heart of the epidemic were being badly
hurt. "The Ebola outbreak is having an acute macroeconomic and
social impact on three already fragile countries in West
Africa," IMF spokesman Gerry Rice told reporters in Washington.
Rice said the IMF was assessing the impact and any extra
financing needs with Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
AID EFFORT CHOKED OFF
The Lagos case contributed to the decision by a number of
airlines to halt services to Ebola-affected countries. Air
France said on Wednesday it had suspended flights to
Sierra Leone on the advice of the French
Aylward said it was vital to restore commercial airline
routes to the region to help transport aid workers and supplies,
but in the meantime the WHO plan includes an "air bridge" to be
operated by the U.N.'s World Food Programme.
"We assume current airline limitations will stop within the
next couple of weeks. This is absolutely vital," he said. "Right
now the aid effort risks being choked off."
West African health ministers meeting in Ghana on Thursday
echoed the WHO's concerns and called for the reopening of
borders and an end to flight bans.
(Additional reporting by Kwasi Kpodo in Accra, Ben Hirschler
and Julia Payne in London, Anna Yukhananov in Washington and
Sharon Begley in New York; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by
Daniel Flynn and David Stamp)