Residents line up to receive a ration of 9 cups of rice each at a distribution center on Aug. 23, 2014, in Dolo Town, Liberia. / John Moore, Getty Images
The Ebola health crisis threatens to turn into a much broader "food crisis" in some of the world's most impoverished countries, according to the United Nations' World Food Program.
The program is scaling up its operations in West Africa to provide food to 1.3 million people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The food will go to people being treated for Ebola; their relatives; and those who have been quarantined by their governments, in an effort to halt the spread of Ebola.
"The food chain is threatened at many levels," the World Food Program said in a statement. Hundreds of families have lost loved ones, many of whom were their family's breadwinners.
Farmers are leaving their crops as they flee areas ravaged by Ebola, according to a statement from the food program. People are not able to travel and trade freely, as countries close borders and international airlines cancel flights, says Michael Stulman of Catholic Relief Services. People are also not able to hunt for bush meat, a practice that has been banned in some places due to the high risk of contracting Ebola while butchering the animals. Bats and apes can carry Ebola.
"We have already seen alarming price increases on imported food commodities such as rice," Stulman says. "The harvest this season is going to be seriously compromised because many people have been unable to access their farms due to the travel restrictions and other emergency measures in place."
Food prices in affected countries are already rising, Stulman says. The cost of a 110-pound bag of rice, for example, has risen from $37.50 to $45.40 for local rice in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. The cost of imported rice rose $15.50.
"The operating environment is already very challenging, and as airlines begin canceling flights and closing borders in West Africa, this is disrupting the response effort," Stulman says. "Organizations that normally respond to an emergency are now being cautious because there isn't reliable and consistent transportation to and from the affected region. It also makes it more difficult to send life-saving supplies and equipment to the affected countries."
Aid agencies are concerned about the possibility of seaports being cordoned off, Stulman says. If "the vessels take similar steps as the airlines, then we have a major problem," he says.
Getting to West Africa has become more difficult as airlines have canceled flights because of the epidemic. One of AmeriCares' five shipments was delayed after a shipping company refused to go to Sierra Leone, says Garrett Ingoglia, AmeriCares' vice president of emergency response. The group chartered its own plane to get around these difficulties.
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