Could Ebola be the next AIDS? Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seems to think it's a possibility.
"I will say that in the 30 years that I have been working in public health, the only thing like this has been AIDS," Frieden said Thursday at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, D.C. "We have to work now so that this is not the world's next AIDS."
Frieden's remarks came one day after the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. The 42-year-old Liberian resident was being treated at Dallas's Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, which is now under scrutiny for the level of care it provided.
"We've now had exactly one patient diagnosed with Ebola for the first time in this country, and he is the one patient treated for Ebola in this country who has died," msnbc's Rachel Maddow said Wednesday. "How did we do on this test as a country? How badly did we screw this up?"
A spokesperson for Texas Health Presbyterian defended the hospital on Thursday, telling NBC News that Duncan "was treated the way any other patient would have been treated, regardless of nationality or ability to pay for care."
No other cases of Ebola have yet been diagnosed on U.S. soil. But in West Africa, the outbreak continues to spiral out of control. The current Ebola epidemic has claimed the lives of more than 3,800 people, mainly in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization. At the IMF/World Bank meeting Thursday, West African leaders called on the international community for help.
"Our people are dying," Sierra Leone President Ernst Bai Koroma said. "Without your quick response, a tragedy unforeseen in modern times will threaten the well-being and compromise the security of people everywhere."
The U.S. is sending up to 4,000 military personnel to West Africa as part of a mission to stop the disease’s deadly march. And at the meeting Thursday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called for a 20-fold surge in international aid. Later in the day, NBC News learned that the first trial of an Ebola vaccine started with three health care workers in Mali. It'll be months before any vaccine could be available, but experts say the trials in Africa mark an important first step.
But the death toll is still climbing, with a devastating economic toll not far behind. According to a World Bank report released Wednesday, the two-year regional financial impact of the unprecedented Ebola outbreak could reach $32.6 billion by the end of 2015.
In recent decades, a different deadly disease -- HIV/AIDS -- has spread throughout the African continent at a similarly alarming rate. In 2012, roughly 25 million people were living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for nearly 70% of the global total. The epidemic has also killed approximately 636,000 people in the U.S. since the CDC reported the first known case of HIV in 1981.
Determined not to let Ebola ravage the U.S. in the same way, federal officials have imposed new screening procedures at five high-traffic American airports: New York’s JFK International Airport, Washington-Dulles, Newark, Chicago-O’Hare and Atlanta. There, travelers from West Africa will have to fill out a questionnaire and have their temperatures taken. A fever is often the first sign of Ebola but it could also signify other ailments, like malaria. The United Kingdom confirmed Thursday that it too would be enacting additional screening measures at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports as well as Eurostar terminals.
For a majority of Americans, however, the screening procedures are not enough. Fifty-eight percent would support a ban on all incoming flights from countries experiencing the Ebola outbreak, an exclusive NBC News online survey has found, with 20% of respondents opposed. The CDC has stressed that isolating West Africa would only make it more difficult to deliver aid and control the epidemic at its source. Until the outbreak is stopped in those countries hit hardest, Frieden has said, the risk to American lives will never be zero.