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Fear of Ebola could have “catastrophic” economic costs, World Bank predicts

Sales of fuel have declined sharply in countries affected by Ebola due to restrictions on travel and shipping. (World Bank)

A report issued Wednesday by the World Bank forecasts that the total economic impact of Ebola could exceed $32 billion by the end of 2015 if the virus spreads from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to neighboring countries.

That single dollar amount doesn't fully convey the extraordinary human toll of a virus that kills four in five of its victims and could infect as many 1.4 million people by January. Yet the World Bank's estimate is a reminder that sickness and death are only part of what could be a developing regional crisis.

Already, farmers are abandoning their fields, and local authorities are restricting shipments of goods, according to the report. Fear of Ebola is spreading much faster than the virus itself, with what the report describes as potentially "catastrophic" economic consequences, including food shortages.

The World Bank's latest forecast elaborates on a previous report, adding new details and expanding the analysis to the region as a whole. The authors are optimistic that neighboring countries will be able to contain outbreaks, in which case the economic effects would be limited. They note that it is impossible to predict the spread of the virus and its effect on the economy with much confidence.

All the same, the report's descriptions of current conditions on the ground so far are alarming.

Operations at China Union, the second largest mining concern in Liberia, have been halted since August. Rubber exports out of the country have been interrupted, and the construction of a new palm oil mill is on hold.

Diesel sales in Sierra Leone fell by roughly a quarter over the summer as travel and trucking have slowed. Rice farmers there are eating their seed, unable to buy food.

In Guinea, where the average per capita income is only $460, palm oil production has fallen by three quarters. Foreign firms have evacuated their employees, and the hotel occupancy rate in Conakry, the capital, has fallen below 40 percent.

The ramifications could extend to other countries in the region if Ebola is not controlled. Hedge funds are already buying up cocoa in case the virus spreads to the Ivory Coast, the world's largest producer of cocoa beans, Bloomberg reported.

Any serious shortage in the supply of commodities like cocoa and rubber from West Africa would have global economic consequences, as would widespread restrictions on air travel if they become necessary.

Those possibilities arise at a time when the World Health Organization has not been adequately funded. The organization's annual budget is $3.4 billion -- only a small fraction of which is devoted to preventing epidemics rather than other priorities such as chronic disease.

It's a small price to pay to avoid costly disruptions to the global economy and to save countless lives in future epidemics.