CONAKRY, Guinea - The deadly Ebola virus that has killed more than 1,000 in West Africa is disrupting the flow of goods, forcing the United Nations to plan food convoys for up to a million people as hunger threatens the largely impoverished area.
Amid roadblocks manned by troops and pervasive fear among the population of the dreaded disease, the worst-ever outbreak of Ebola is increasingly impacting the food supply in three countries.
The impacts are evident in Guinea's capital of Conakry, where fruit and vegetables no longer arrive from the country's breadbasket. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, several markets have been shut down. The price of rice and other staples is soaring in areas under Ebola quarantine.
Hunters of bushmeat, which can carry the Ebola virus, have lost their livelihoods, and farmers in some areas have been cut off from their fields. Price-gouging hurts people who struggle to feed themselves in the best of times, observers say.
While none of the regulations restricts the movement of basic necessities, fear and inconvenience are disrupting supplies. Some 1 million people in isolated areas might need food assistance in the coming months, according to the U.N. World Food Program, which is preparing a regional emergency operation to bring food by convoy to the needy. The three-month operation can be extended.
The World Health Organization warned this week that the outbreak could last for another several months and that its size may be vastly underestimated.
"It's a health crisis, but it has impacted food security," WFP spokeswoman Fabienne Pompey said. The U.N. food agency has already provided aid for months to several thousand people, including those in isolation wards and their families.
Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which have imposed some internal restrictions on travel, are becoming more isolated as regional airlines suspend flights to the three countries. Major international airlines are still flying in, but the U.N. will start flights for humanitarian workers on Saturday to ensure aid operations aren't interrupted. In the coming weeks, they will also ferry staff to remote areas by helicopter.
Guinea is doing vigorous health checks on people moving into and out of infected areas in the country's southeast, where the outbreak was first identified in March. Products from these forested areas, which used to fill many markets of the capital of Conakry, are now shunned.
Idrissa Bah, a truck driver who customarily made the 370-mile (600-kilometer) trip from the forest region to the capital several times a month, has stayed put for three months because no one wants food from the southeast anymore, even though transmission through food is very unlikely. Daniel Bausch, who runs the virology and emerging infections department at the U.S. Naval Medical Research unit in Lima, Peru, said since only people with symptoms are infectious, it's unlikely they would be handling food. Also, the Ebola virus can only grow in living tissue and doesn't survive very long outside of it.
Still, the Yimbaya market in Conakry, known as the "forest market," is largely empty these days. A few merchants sell clothes and shoes, instead of the sweet potatoes, taro, manioc and plantains that used to heap the tables.
Faraban Traore used to sell palm oil from southeastern Guinea in the markets of Conakry.
"This trade gave me everything," he said. "But since they've said that Ebola is in Forested Guinea, no one wants to touch the oil."
To get into or out of Lofa or Bomi counties in Liberia, travelers must show ID, pass a health check and be providing an essential service. Similar restrictions have cut off Kenema and Kailahun districts in Sierra Leone. While food trucks are allowed into these places, truckers are staying away because of the hassle, said Augustine Allieu, country director for Plan International in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone banned special market days, where goods were sold at a discount. Liberia has shut markets along its borders with the other infected countries, leading to steep price increases.
"Everyone has tried to use that situation to exploit the people; they just hiked the prices of everything," said David Kolleh, who works in Bomi country for Sime Darby, a company that runs rubber and palm oil plantations in Liberia.
The cost of a bag of rice jumped 25 percent overnight, he said. The affected districts in Sierra Leone have seen similar price hikes, with a cup of rice jumping from 20 cents to 27 cents. Such a jump makes a big difference where more than half the population lives on less than $1 a day, according to U.N. statistics.
Niepou Haba, who used to sell vegetables from southeastern Guinea in Conakry, said she hasn't paid her rent in three months because nothing is arriving from the forest region.
"Our business is dead," said the 44-year-old woman, who raised six children on proceeds from the trade. "The market is empty.... How am I going to feed my children?"