Ebola's spread could lead to catastrophic costs: World Bank

FREETOWN (Sierra Leone) - The World Bank warned that the economic costs of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa will escalate to "catastrophic" proportions if the virus spreads, while Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama criticised the international response to the disease.

"If other countries in the vicinity in the sub-region of West Africa fail to do what Nigeria and Senegal have done - which is to keep things under control - then the costs will become much, much larger," Mr Francisco Ferreira, World Bank chief economist for Africa, said over the weekend.

His remarks were followed yesterday by the announcement from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the outbreaks in Nigeria and Senegal are "pretty much contained", though the overall death toll rose to 2,793 out of 5,762 cases.

In Sierra Leone, a controversial three-day lockdown has uncovered some 150 new cases of the deadly virus in addition to around 70 bodies previously unaccounted for, the authorities said yesterday, adding that they may repeat the campaign.

Most of the West African country's six million people were confined to their homes for 72 hours from last Friday as 30,000 volunteers went from door to door to educate residents on the deadly epidemic.

The spread of the virus may cost Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three nations where most infections have taken place, as much as US$809 million (S$1 billion), the World Bank said last Wednesday. Early findings of the lender's research into the economic risks of the disease spreading to other countries show the damage could be more severe, according to Mr Ferreira.

Meanwhile, Mr Mahama said in an interview in New York on Sunday that the Ebola outbreak may reduce gross domestic product in the region by about 3.6 per cent. Funds pledged by international donors have not yet flowed in and a "panic response" by closing borders and airlines cancelling flights are further damaging the worst-hit economies, he said.

"These resources should be fast-tracked so that the countries have the resources to be able to fight the disease," he said.

His argument was yesterday backed by a committee of some 20 health advisers to WHO. They said in statement that the ban on travel or trade with the infected countires would "hinder relief and response efforts".

The outbreak will probably be contained within six to nine months, Mr Mahama said. While the United Nations has estimated the region needs US$1 billion in funds to fight the disease, so far pledges have amounted to about US$350 million, he said.

The economic costs of the outbreak are largely a result of fear and aversion behaviour which spreads quickly once populations sense an outbreak might be out of control, Mr Ferreira said.

"If that happens in a larger country like Nigeria or Senegal then the costs would be much much higher," he said, warning of "a very bad scenario".

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS