World 'losing battle' to contain Ebola: MSF

DAKAR (AFP) - International medical agency Medecins sans Frontieres said Tuesday the world was "losing the battle" to contain Ebola as the United Nations warned of severe food shortages in the hardest-hit countries.

MSF told a UN briefing in New York that world leaders were failing to address the epidemic and called for an urgent global biological disaster response to get aid and personnel to west Africa.

"Six months into the worst Ebola epidemic in history, the world is losing the battle to contain it. Leaders are failing to come to grips with this transnational threat," said MSF international president Joanne Liu.

"The (World Health Organisation) announcement on August 8 that the epidemic constituted a 'public health emergency of international concern' has not led to decisive action, and states have essentially joined a global coalition of inaction."

Liu called for the international community to fund more beds for a regional network of field hospitals, dispatch trained personnel and deploy mobile laboratories across Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

MSF said in a statement accompanying the briefing that the crisis was particularly acute in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, where it is estimated that "800 additional beds are needed".

"Every day we have to turn sick people away because we are too full", said Stefan Liljegren, MSF's coordinator at the ELWA Three Ebola unit in Monrovia. "I have had to tell ambulance drivers to call me before they arrive with patients, no matter how unwell they are, since we are often unable to admit them."

MSF said that while its care centres in Liberia and Sierra Leone were overcrowded, people were continuing to die in their communities. "In Sierra Leone, highly infectious bodies are rotting in the streets," their statement said.

The Ebola outbreak has killed 1,552 people and infected 3,062, according to the latest figures released by the WHO. At current infection rates, the agency fears it could take six to nine months and at least US$490 million (Sing$614 million) to bring the outbreak under control, by which time over 20,000 people could be affected.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation issued an alert that restrictions on movement in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone had led to panic buying, food shortages and severe price hikes.

"Access to food has become a pressing concern for many people in the three affected countries and their neighbours," said Bukar Tijani, FAO Regional Representative for Africa. "With the main harvest now at risk and trade and movements of goods severely restricted, food insecurity is poised to intensify in the weeks and months to come.

"The situation will have long-lasting impacts on farmers' livelihoods and rural economies."

The food security alert was sounded as the WHO announced a separate Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has now killed 31 people, although it added that the contagion was confined to an area 800 kilometres north of Kinshasa.

The closure of border crossings where the three countries meet, as well as reduced trade at seaports, is strangling supply and sending prices soaring, the FAO said. In Liberia, which has been hardest-hit with 694 deaths, the price of the national staple cassava in market stalls in Monrovia went up 150 per cent within the first weeks of August, the FAO said.

"Even prior to the Ebola outbreak, households in some of the affected areas were spending up to 80 percent of their incomes on food," said Vincent Martin, Head of FAO's Resilience Hub in Dakar, Senegal. "Now these latest price spikes are effectively putting food completely out of their reach. This situation may have social repercussions that could lead to subsequent impact on the disease containment."

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) launched an emergency operation on Tuesday to get 65,000 tonnes of food to 1.3 million people in the worst-hit areas.

The outbreak of Ebola, transmitted through contact with infected bodily fluids, has sparked alarm throughout west Africa but also further afield, with international flights being halted. The WHO has appealed for the reversal of flight cancellations and virologists said Tuesday travel restrictions could worsen the epidemic, limiting medical and food supplies and keeping out much-needed doctors.

"If we impose an aerial quarantine on these countries, we undermine their fight against the epidemic: the rotation of foreign medical staff and distribution of supplies, already inadequate, will become even more difficult," said Sylvain Baize, head of the Pasteur Institute's viral haemorrhagic fever centre in Lyon, France.

Meanwhile Michael Kinzer of the US-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) likened closing borders to "closing your eyes".

"It makes more sense for countries to spend their money and energy on preparing their health systems to recognise an Ebola case and respond correctly... so that the virus does not spread," he said.