Ebola Epidemic Out of Control in Sierra Leone, Compounded by Food Shortages and Starvation

November 7, 2014

The Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone is out of control, overwhelming the government.

"We were not prepared for the Ebola scourge. It took us by surprise, and with our weak health system, we can only rely on support given to us by our international partners,"

Health Minister Dr. Abubakar Fofana reported to IPS news service on Thursday. Of $221 million the Health Ministry requires just to contain the outbreak, only $110 million has been earmarked for the region by international donors, most of which hasn't arrived.

According to the Africa Governance Initiative, Ebola is spreading nine times faster in rural Sierra Leone than it was two months ago. Moreover, the spread of the virus is swelling in the capital of Freetown, which is recording six times more cases per day, compared to two months ago. Compounding the crisis, is the dire lack of food which, according to the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), is forcing some families to leave their quarantined homes. The World Food Program (WFP) has been trying to distribute food to 400,000 people, Reuters reported today, but this is not sufficient. Citing a Nov. 4 report by Associated Press, The Daily Beast reported that "thousands" of Sierra Leoneans are fleeing their villages in search of food.

Prior to the Ebola outbreak, Sierra Leone had been devastated by a decade-long civil war, with some of the highest malnutrition rates in the world, including 15% acute malnutrition among children under five years of age. With many districts now sealed off to prevent the spread of Ebola, already limited access to food has become almost impossible.

Currently, Sierra Leone has 288 beds, spread across four Ebola Treatment Centers (ETCs), treating 196 confirmed cases, UNMEER said. The UN agency suspects, however, that an average of 50% of the Ebola cases are not being reported. The Daily Beast reported Thursday, a suspected 5,338 cases. By December, a total of 1,864 beds are needed, and "an additional 731 safe beds need to be planned, secured and made available by the first week of December," UNMEER said in its Nov. 5 report. "Lack of available beds in ETCs is forcing families to care for patients at home, where caregivers are unable to adequately protect themselves from EVD exposure, thereby increasing transmission risk," UNMEER warned.

Doctors Without Borders reports that the international response to Sierra Leone's crisis has been

"slow" and "uncoordinated...there is a huge gap in all aspects of the response, including medical care, training of health staff, infection control, contact tracing, epidemiological surveillance, alert and referral systems, community education and mobilization."