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'Grave concerns' over food shortages in Ebola-hit nations

02 September 2014, 19:02

Dakar - The United Nations warned on Tuesday of "grave food security concerns" in the west African countries hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak as the deadly epidemic caused labour shortages and disrupted cross-border trade.

Restrictions on movement in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone has led to panic buying, food shortages and severe price hikes, especially in towns and cities, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization said.

"Access to food has become a pressing concern for many people in the three affected countries and their neighbours," said Bukar Tijani, FAO Regional Representative for Africa.

"With the main harvest now at risk and trade and movements of goods severely restricted, food insecurity is poised to intensify in the weeks and months to come.

Also read: Ebola hits 5th African state as Senengal confirms first case

"The situation will have long-lasting impacts on farmers' livelihoods and rural economies."

The Ebola outbreak has killed 1,552 people and infected 3,062, according to the latest figures released by the World Health Organization (WHO).

At current infection rates, the WHO fears it could take six to nine months and at least $490 million (373 million euros) to bring the outbreak under control, by which time over 20,000 people could be affected.

The food security alert was sounded as the WHO announced a separate Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo has now killed 31 people, although it added that the contagion was confined to an area around 800 kilometres (500 miles) north of Kinshasa.

The WHO had previously given a death toll of 13 for the country.

Emergency operation

Quarantine zones imposed in the epicentre of the outbreak straddling the three west African countries will lead to food shortages for "large numbers" of people, the FAO said, with the main harvest season for rice and maize just weeks away.

Production of cash crops like palm oil, cocoa and rubber is also expected to be seriously affected, throwing people further into poverty.

Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone rely heavily on imports for cereals and other commodities.

The closure of border crossings where the three countries meet, as well as reduced trade at seaports, is strangling supply and sending prices soaring, the FAO said.

In Liberia, which has been hardest-hit by the outbreak with 694 deaths, the price of cassava in market stalls in Monrovia went up 150 percent within the first weeks of August, the FAO said.

"Even prior to the Ebola outbreak, households in some of the affected areas were spending up to 80 percent of their incomes on food," said Vincent Martin, Head of FAO's Resilience Hub in Dakar, Senegal.

"Now these latest price spikes are effectively putting food completely out of their reach. This situation may have social repercussions that could lead to subsequent impact on the disease containment."

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has launched a regional emergency operation to get 65,000 tonnes of food to 1.3 million people in the worst-hit areas.

"Preventing further loss of human life and stopping the spread of the virus remain the top priorities at this time," the FAO said.

Growing border tensions

The FAO's concerns have been echoed by the Mano River Union economic bloc, which groups the three countries.

Deputy secretary-general Lynda Koroma, told Sierra Leone state television on Sunday she had toured farms on the country's northwestern border with Guinea and found farmers were unable to work.

"We should start to look seriously at the food security issue because already the first planting season has been missed, particularly in the east where some cities have been quarantined," she said.

Fred Lahai, a member of her entourage, told AFP the epidemic was fuelling growing tension between Guinean and Sierra Leonean border officials over the movement of traders across their shared frontier.

"Unofficially, the border is closed and for three weeks now the Sierra Leone Border Unit has been holding talks with Guinean border officials to allow traders to enter but the request has been turned down," said Lahai, a local government official in northwestern Sierra Leone.

Traders reached by telephone told AFP they had been trying to transport palm oil, onions and other consumer goods to Guinea, but found themselves stranded at the border.

The outbreak of the Ebola virus, transmitted through contact with infected bodily fluids, has sparked alarm throughout west Africa but also further afield, with international flights being cancelled and countries scrambling to come up with a cure.

Japanese researchers said Tuesday they had developed a new method to detect the presence of the Ebola virus in 30 minutes, with technology that could allow doctors to quickly diagnose infection.



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