Scale of Ebola epidemic in Guinea forces WFP into uncharted territory

The World Food Programme (WFP) is facing an unprecedented challenge in Guinea as it struggles to halt the spread of the Ebola, feed more than 350,000 people and protect the progress made in tackling chronic child malnutrition over recent years, a senior official has warned.

Elisabeth Faure, WFP’s Guinea director, said the scale of the epidemic was forcing the organisation to operate far beyond its core emergency mission of getting $25m (£15.5m) of food to at least 353,000 people.

As well as distributing the food, she said, the programme was now being called on to help build Ebola treatment centres, move aid workers around the country and provide emergency communications.

“We’re transporting medical equipment into remote areas, we’re helping with procuring personal protective equipment kits and gloves and we’re also moving humanitarian personnel with our humanitarian air service, which is a 19-seater aircraft,” she said.

“It’s a very deep engagement that goes well beyond our mandate, frankly. This is a huge operation and what’s really different is building treatment centres. The WFP builds other things, like huge warehouses, and does road rehabilitation in order to get food from A to B … But the new thing is building treatment centres.”

Faure said that WFP engineers, working with colleagues from the World Health Organisation and blueprints from Médecins Sans Frontières were building four Ebola treatment centres, each with a 100-bed capacity.

“It’s the scale of the logistics and emergency telecoms that is new,” she said. “This is quite unprecedented. It’s considered a level-three emergency by the organisation – which is the highest emergency – but in fact a lot of people are saying it is about a level-five: it’s much bigger than we’re used to.”

The WFP, she added, urgently need more money to help it cope with the emergency: despite appealing for $120m for the regional food response, it has received only about $51m.

The west African Ebola outbreak has so far claimed 4,922 lives, the vast majority in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Despite reports that the number of cases in Liberia has begun to fall, Faure said things in Guinea were going in the opposite direction, with the “robust epidemic” showing no sign of subsiding.

“We’ve seen several waves, with the number of cases increasing and then declining and increasing and declining again,” she said. “But we’re now in a kind of third peak – by far the highest peak – with the highest number of cases since the epidemic started in Guinea.”

Faure said the wave pattern underlined the need to guard against complacency, adding that the disease was now starting to appear in previously unaffected areas of Guinea.

Equally worrying, she said, was the effect it was having on people’s ability to feed their families.

“The spread of Ebola has affected food trade and markets and also caused wages to go down in Guinea,” she said.

A recent WFP survey carried out by text message showed that people were beginning to eat less or reduce the number of meals they have each day to make their money go further.

“That’s worrying, because we’re no longer in the lean season, where there are food shortages,” she said. “Guinea was a very food insecure country to begin with and, at this time of year, things should be beginning to improve.”

The longer Ebola continued to spread in Guinea, said Faure, the greater the threat to existing programmes to fight the country’s levels of chronic child malnutrition, which stood at 40% in some areas even before the outbreak.

“Many of the health centres are closed and many of the health workers aren’t working any more, so all the programmes to treat malnutrition are likely to be affected,” she said. “That’s why we need to work not only on the emergency response, but also on the longer-term by restarting or expanding the nutrition programmes we have in the country. Otherwise, we’re going to see development basically being lost and all the progress that’s been made being reversed.”

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Dan Mullin is an active writer and editor for the Pluto Daily who covered the 2014 Ebola Outbreak. Mullin attended the Wake Forest School of Medicine before leaving to pursue his lifelong science goal of allowing humans to live forever via a computer/brain transfer.