How The Ebola Crisis Became A Food Crisis

CREDIT: AP Photo/Abbas Dulleh

Women from West Point, carry water on their heads as they sell water to fellow residents, in one of the areas where the Ebola virus has claimed lives in Monrovia, Liberia, Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014.

Earlier this week, Ivory Coast’s port authority lifted a ban on food-carrying ships to and from Liberia, helping address growing concerns about food insecurity in the region stemming from the response to the Ebola epidemic.

The Ebola virus has ravaged Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea since February, forcing West African officials to take extreme measures against the disease, which has killed more than 1,100 people so far, including more than 400 Liberians. But many of those measures, including the Ivorian port authority’s blockade, have caused further injury to millions of Liberians currently under siege.

Several market places have shuttered and the price of rice — a staple West African crop — has increased by at least 25 percent. The Liberian government has isolated West Point and Dolo Town, two densely populated Liberian neighborhoods, and created a curfew, as part of an effort to stop Ebola’s spread. Liberian military forces later clashed with 50,000 people in West Point on Thursday night after some residents tried to break a barricade and seek food sources.

“It’s a health crisis, but it has impacted food security,” World Food Program (WPF) spokeswoman Fabienne Pompey told the Associated Press. WPF, a United Nations (UN) agency, announced the launch of a convoy that will deliver food and supplies to nearly one million Liberians. The UN has also coordinated flights to remote areas for health workers.

Guineans and Sierra Leoneans have experienced similar woes. The value of locally-grown fruits and vegetables in Conakry — Guinea’s capital that’s also known as the “forest market” — has fallen at a similar rate. Sierra Leonean officials cancelled special market days that allow vendors to sell their wares at discounted prices. In a region where most people make less than $1 per day, the loss of revenue and depletion of healthy food sources reinforces the perils of life in weak infrastructures and health care systems.

Once humans contract the Ebola virus, symptoms — which include fever, sore throat and muscles, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and internal bleeding — appear within two days to three weeks. The World Health Organization (WHO) said the Ebola virus death rate falls between 60 and 90 percent. Prevention hinges on killing and properly disposing of Ebola-infected animals, wearing protective clothing, and washing hands when around people infected with the virus.

In recent weeks, health officials have given Zmapp, an experimental Ebola vaccine, to two American foreign aid workers and three Liberian doctors, reportedly with some success. Even with that glimmer of hope, WHO officials warn that the official tally of the infected and dead underestimates Ebola’s true impact. The public health disaster has compelled African and British airline companies to cancel flights going to Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone — countries hit by the Ebola virus the hardest — sparking criticism from WHO officials who call the tactic counterproductive to its efforts.