A United Nations food agency warned on Tuesday of "grave food security concerns" in the west African countries hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak as the deadly epidemic caused labor shortages and disrupted cross-border trade.
On Monday, a man escaped from an Ebola quarantine center in Monrovia and sent local people fleeing in fear as he walked through a local market in search of food.
The patient, who wore a tag showing he had tested positive for Ebola, held a stick and tried to get away from doctors in the center in the Paynesville neighborhood as they arrived on the scene attempting to catch him.
Restrictions on movement in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, such as border closings and suspended flights, have led to panic buying, food shortages and severe price hikes, especially in towns and cities, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization said.
"Access to food has become a pressing concern for many people in the three affected countries and their neighbors," said Bukar Tijani, FAO Regional Representative for Africa.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed more than 1,500 people, and authorities have cordoned off entire towns in an effort to halt the virus' spread.
Even seaports are seeing less traffic, restricting food imports to the three hardest-hit countries, which all rely on grain from abroad to feed their people, according to FAO.
In Liberia, which has been hardest-hit by the outbreak with 694 deaths, the price of cassava in market stalls in the capital, Monrovia, went up 150 percent within the first weeks of August, the FAO said.
The U.N. has said 1.3 million people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone will need help feeding themselves in coming months.
The World Food Program and FAO said they are planning to scale up life-saving operations by delivering 65,000 tons of food to these areas over the next three months.
And the food situation looks likely to worsen, FAO said, because restrictions on movement are preventing laborers from accessing farms, and the harvest of rice and corn is set to begin in a few weeks.
In a cruel irony, U.N. officials noted on Tuesday that the main Ebola-affected countries have had adequate rain and were looking forward to a good harvest season.
Byrs said, the labor shortage is linked to Ebola as well.
“The majority of Ebola victims are between the ages of 15 and 45, so hundreds of households will have lost one or more members of working age. The reduction of household income coupled with rising food prices will also worsen food security," she said.
Urging opened borders
The World Health Organization is asking countries to lift border closures because they are preventing supplies from reaching people in desperate need.
However, Ivory Coast decided Monday night to keep its borders with Guinea and Liberia closed but said it would open a humanitarian corridor to allow supplies in.
World Food Program spokeswoman Elizabeth Byrs told VOA that quarantine zones aimed at combating the spread of the virus are curtailing the movement and marketing of food.
“We can see that travel restrictions and displacement have already affected prices because food producers are leaving their land to seek potentially safer areas," Byrs said.
"The Ebola crisis has led to buying panic also, and price hikes, and also the ban on the consumption of traditional protein sources, particularly bush meat may have implications for the food security and nutrition of the people in these communities," she added.
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 kilometers (500 miles) north of Kinshasa.
Congo Health Minister Felix Kabange Numbi said officials have recorded a total of 53 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola in the Djera district of Equateur province.
The outbreak is believed to be unrelated to the one in West Africa.
In Monrovia, the patient who escaped was from Elwa hospital, which last month was so crowded it had to turn away Ebola victims.
More than 1,550 people in four West African countries have died from the virus since the outbreak was first recorded in March.
Liberia has the highest infection rate with around 700 deaths out of 1,327 suspected and confirmed cases.
Patients not receiving food, water
One local woman said care for Ebola patients was so inadequate they were not even being fed.
“The patients are hungry, they are starving. No food, no water. The government needs to do more. Let Ellen [Johnson-Sirleaf] do more,” she said.
Health care workers eventually forced the man into a waiting ambulance and took him back to the facility.
One local man said he was the fifth patient to escape from the center.
"We told the Liberian government from the beginning, we do not want Ebola camp here. Today makes it the fifth Ebola patient coming outside vomiting and toiletting.”
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a U.S.-educated Nobel Peace Prize winner, has sought to quell criticism of the government's response to the outbreak by issuing orders threatening officials with dismissal for failing to report for work or for fleeing the country.
The outbreak, which was first recorded in March, originally began in Guinea, but has spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and most recently Senegal.
Lisa Schlein contributed to this report from Geneva. Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AFP and AP.