No one should be surprised that we have underestimated the magnitude of this Ebola outbreak considering its diffusion through primarily rural channels. However, the numbers are staggering nonetheless. In 2000, Uganda--where I conduct field research on zoonotic viruses--witnessed the largest Ebola outbreak on record, infecting just over 400 people and killing around half as many. The 2014 outbreak has already surpassed this total by an order of magnitude, and the WHO projects the outbreak could reach 20,000 by the time it is (hopefully) quelled in 6-9 months.
Healthcare professionals have emphasized the extremely low likelihood of sustained Ebola transmission in nations with robust healthcare infrastructure. Nevertheless, this outbreak has already stoked international pandemonium that will inevitably impact the global economy. The WHO has placed the cost of controlling this Ebola epidemic at nearly $500 million USD, and its true economic impact will likely be far greater. The SARS outbreak of 2003, which infected ~8000 people (with a ~10% mortality rate), cost Southeast Asian economies an estimated $50 billion USD. Although SARS is certainly an imperfect template for the current situation for a number of reasons (e.g., geographic scope, transmission mode), the sense of uncertainty engendered by these RNA viruses is certainly analogous.
Clearly, there is an economic incentive to develop better strategies to identify and control "smoldering" localized epidemics before their ignition into geographically widespread pandemics. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, but how can we move toward the prevention of diseases that seem to arise so sporadically and without warning? I would argue that such a strategy necessitates a more robust understanding of the interaction between pathogen evolutionary dynamics and reservoir host ecology, but that's a topic for another day.
"The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is still picking up speed, according to new data from WHO today. More than 3069 cases have been reported, but WHO now says that as many as 20,000 people could ultimately be infected. A “road map” for bringing the situation under control estimates the cost at $490 million."http://news.sciencemag.org/africa/2014/08/ebola-outbreak-still-accelerating