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Ebola escalation could trigger food crisis

As UN marks World Food Day, body warns that fears and travel restrictions caused by virus could result in food shortage

As the United Nations marked World Food Day on Thursday, the organization said it has not yet reached more than a million people in need of food in West Africa, where food prices have spiked and farms have been abandoned as people flee Ebola-stricken areas and quarantines restrict the movement of workers.

If the Ebola outbreak continues to grow unabated, the global famine warning system predicts West Africa could experience a major food crisis by January.

U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations are scrambling to scale up efforts to avert widespread hunger amid the outbreak. The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) said on Wednesday it needs to reach 1.3 million people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the three countries hit hardest by the deadly virus.

"The world is mobilizing and we need to reach the smallest villages in the most remote locations," Denise Brown, WFP's regional director for West Africa, said in a statement released Wednesday. "Indications are that things will get worse before they improve. How much worse depends on us all."

So far the WFP has provided food to 534,000 people and expects to reach between 600,000 and 700,000 this month, said Bettina Luescher, a spokeswoman for the agency. "And we are working hard to reach and scale up to 1.3 million eventually."

WFP is providing food to patients in Ebola treatment centers, survivors of the virus who have been discharged, and communities that have been quarantined or seen widespread transmission. WFP is also helping with logistics and is managing the U.N. Humanitarian Air Service between the three hard-hit countries as well as the nearby cities of Dakar in Senegal and Accra in Ghana, to help humanitarian workers rapidly deploy to the field.

"We are assessing how families are coping as the virus keeps spreading," Luescher said. "We expect to have a better understanding of the impact of the Ebola outbreak on food availability and farming activities by the end of October."

WFP said that people living in the Kailahun and Kenema districts of Sierra Leone — the areas where most Ebola cases have been reported — are finding it harder to feed their families than people in other parts of the country and are resorting to more desperate measures. More than 80 percent of people in those areas said they ate less expensive food following the outbreak, and 75 percent said they’ve reduced their daily meals by numbers and portions.

Kanayo Nwanze, president of the U.N. International Fund for Agricultural Development, said Monday that up to 40 percent of farms have been abandoned in the worst-affected areas of Sierra Leone, and that there are food shortages in Senegal and other countries in West Africa because regional trade has been disrupted.

He said preliminary reports suggest that "trade volume in these markets is half of what it was at this time last year."

Andrea Tamburini, CEO of the nongovernmental organization Action Against Hunger, which operates in the hardest-hit West African countries, said his two main concerns are the spike in food costs and the shortage of workers due to restrictions on movement. Farmers have abandoned their crops to seek refuge in locations considered less exposed to the Ebola virus, he said.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said that in Lofa County, one of Liberia’s worst-affected areas, the price of food and other commodities increased from 30 to 75 percent in August alone. Action Against Hunger said the price of cassava — a key carbohydrate staple — increased by almost 150 percent in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, during the first week in August.

The Famine Early Warning Network (FEWS NET) said in a report published in October that if the number of Ebola cases reaches 200,000-250,000 by mid-January, large numbers of people in the three hardest-hit countries would face moderate to extreme food shortages.

FEWS NET said that in this scenario, traders' fears of contracting Ebola and restrictions on movement would severely disrupt the availability of food on local markets, contribute to a significant drop in household incomes and lead to food shortages at local markets.

"Contingency planning for an expanded emergency food assistance response is urgently needed given that the size of the food insecure population could be two to three times higher than currently planned," FEWS NET said.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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