WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — In an effort to keep the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa from becoming a food crisis as well as a health crisis, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has stepped up its efforts to provide nutritional assistance in the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Toward that end, the WFP said it has received donations amounting to about a third of the $179 million it needs to provide emergency food relief in West Africa through February 2015.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), predicted that from September 2014 to March 2015, at least 20% of the population in regions affected by Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia will experience food insecurity or worse. Guinea was expected to be somewhat less affected. Overall, problems obtaining sufficient nutrition especially affect households with ill family members as well as the urban poor, USAID said.

Since the epidemic began in Guinea in December 2013, Ebola has claimed about 4,500 lives in West Africa and shows no signs of abating. The majority of Ebola victims range from 15 years old to 45 years old and are often the main income providers to their families. Greater poverty among those left behind, as well as widespread increases in the price of food, has added to difficulties for West Africans in Ebola-afflicted areas to get the nutrition they need.

Many disruptions in the normal food supply already have accompanied the spread of the disease, with farmers abandoning their land in search of safety in other areas. Governments have banned some traditional protein sources, such as bush meat, including bats and apes, carriers of the Ebola virus. Travel restrictions and the imposition of quarantines also have limited food availability in stricken countries.

The WFP, which receives 100% of its funding from contributions, is soliciting donations on its website, www.wfp.org.  Many humanitarian and development organizations, as well as private foundations and individuals, already have given funds earmarked for hunger relief in Ebola-stricken countries. But more money needs to be raised to meet food needs in West Africa, the W.F.P. said.

China announced Oct. 20 a contribution of $6 million to provide emergency rations in Ebola countries. The Chinese donation was expected to enable the WFP to purchase a month’s worth of food such as rice, fortified cereals, lentils and yellow peas to feed more than 300,000 people living in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, as well as offering other products to help prevent malnutrition.

The WFP has undertaken a number of food assistance initiatives in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone as part of its role as the chief coordinator for the entire humanitarian response to Ebola. On Oct. 17, for instance, the WFP and partners began distributing food to meet 30 days’ needs for 265,000 people in a suburb of Waterloo, Sierra Leone’s capital. Seven hundred aid workers spent one day delivering more than 800 tonnes of rice and fortified cereal. Plans were for the WFP to scale up its efforts in Sierra Leone to reach 600,000 people.

“We are working closely with the Sierra Leone government, non-governmental organizations and U.N. agencies to ensure timely delivery of food assistance to all Ebola-affected people — be it in treatment centers or in quarantined households — to prevent this health crisis from becoming a food and nutrition crisis,” said Gon Myers, the WFP country director in Sierra Leone.

In Guinea, the WFP began food distributions four months ago, reaching about 40,000 people. Plans were under way to gradually increase distributions to 350,000 people over a three-month period. In Sierra Leone, thousands more people were being targeted to receive food during the remainder of 2014. In Liberia, the WFP distributed food to about 67,000 people in quarantined communities and Ebola case management centers from July 1 to Sept. 4. Plans were to reach 449,000 people over a three-month period.

In addition to coordinating food assistance, the WFP is in charge of other key aid efforts related to the Ebola crisis. Through the “Logistics Cluster,” the WFP works with a group of humanitarian organizations to provide transport and storage opportunities during major emergencies. The WFP also manages the U.N. humanitarian response depots that store emergency supplies that may be transported quickly. These depots recently have provided $220,000 of protective gear like gloves, masks and emergency health kits to aid organizations.