Tom Frieden (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to the AIDS epidemic at a conference Thursday morning at the World Bank.

"In my 30 years in public health, the only thing that has been like this is AIDS," Frieden said at a conference at the World Bank attended by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, Guinean President Alpha Condé, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde and representatives of governments and not-for-profit organizations around the world.

"We have to work now so that this is not the world's next AIDS," Frieden warned.

As AIDS was 30 years ago, Ebola is a poorly understood disease, and this epidemic is already a large one. Frieden's agency has predicted that the virus could infect as many as 1.4 million people in Liberia and Sierra Leone by the end of January if efforts to contain it prove unsuccessful. Researchers for the World Health Organization have warned that in the long term, the virus could prove impossible to eradicate if swift action isn't taken now. Ebola would become part of life in West Africa, as AIDS is around the world.

There is one important difference between Ebola and AIDS, which is that Ebola apparently cannot be transmitted until an infected person shows symptoms. A person can carry and transmit human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, for years without showing any symptoms.

That fact might be a small reason for optimism among health officials tasked with preventing Ebola from spreading to other countries, but the situation described by participants in Thursday's meeting was dire. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said by videophone that her country needs assistance removing the bodies of the dead from city streets and burying them in a sanitary fashion. Jim Yong Kim, who presided over the conference as head of the World Bank, cited his group's forecast that the epidemic could cost the regional economy $32 billion if it is not contained, and that food shortages would result as farmers stay away from their fields for fear of contracting the virus.

The participants discussed the need not just for more funds, but also for better coordination. For example, 20,000 suits of protective gear flown from Japan have been awaiting transport for several weeks at an airport in the Ivory Coast.

"It's going to be a long fight," Frieden said.