In a perfect world, the virus could be contained through isolation and tracking, he said.
“You would have all the people who were infected immediately go to a health clinic and be put in an isolation ward, cared for by nurses and doctors in full personal protective equipment,” Epstein said. “Also in a perfect world, you’d be able to go into the villages where there have been outbreaks without opposition and be able to tell people that their burial practices are dangerous to their community.”
You’d also be able to trace every person that every infected person had recent contact with and monitor them for symptoms, important for a disease that can have a 21-day incubation period, he said -- much as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did last spring with a MERS case in Indiana. That's one reason experts don't think the disease will impact countries with certain health care protocols already in place, like the U.S.
The reality in West Africa, however, is nowhere near that best-case scenario. In fact, the area may be especially conducive to the disease's spread -- perhaps even more so than in Central Africa, where the disease had been found previously. West Africa's road system and higher population density make travel easier -- and containment harder, said Robert Garry, a microbiology professor at Tulane University School of Medicine who recently returned from West Africa, where he has been working on Lassa fever efforts for years. Garry believes that because not every case has been reported or tracked, we may be seeing just the tip of the iceberg.
“I don't think it's going to be over anytime soon. Each one of those infected [and not reported] people could infect 10 more -- or hundreds,” he said.
International health organizations, including the WHO and Doctors Without Borders, have said they have reached their limits, and that more government intervention -- “drastic action” -- is needed. A meeting of health ministers from 11 countries to explore ways to prevent the virus from spreading will be held Wednesday and Thursday.
"We need to look for nontraditional ways to get help," Garry said.