Orphaned children: The unsung victims of Ebola

Ebola has claimed the lives of thousands of people in West Africa, and thousands more are currently battling the deadly virus. The latest data from…

A child watches as UNICEF health workers walk through the streets, going house to house to speak about Ebola prevention on August 18, 2014 in New Kru Town, Liberia. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Ebola has claimed the lives of thousands of people in West Africa, and thousands more are currently battling the deadly virus. The latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates more than 13,000 people have been infected with Ebola, and though numbers appear to be declining, the crisis is far from over.

Ebola hasn’t just caused a medical emergency in West Africa; because of the virus and the stigma/fear associated with it, other repercussions are starting to become apparent. One such consequence of the epidemic has to do with the abandonment of children who have either been sick themselves or who have lost their families to the virus. These children, now informally known as “Ebola orphans,” find themselves on the streets, sometimes after weeks of stressful treatment and recovery.

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According to UNICEF, an international humanitarian group focused on helping disadvantaged children, at least 3,700 children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have lost one or both parents to Ebola, and many are being rejected by their surviving relatives for fear of infection.

Thousands of children are living through the deaths of their mother, father or family members from Ebola,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Regional Director for West & Central Africa, in a press release. 

“These children urgently need special attention and support; yet many of them feel unwanted and even abandoned. Orphans are usually taken in by a member of the extended family, but in some communities, the fear surrounding Ebola is becoming stronger than family ties. Ebola is turning a basic human reaction like comforting a sick child into a potential death sentence,” said Fontaine. “The vast majority of the children affected by Ebola are still left without appropriate care. We cannot respond to a crisis of this nature and this scale in the usual ways. We need more courage, more creativity, and far far more resources.”

Some children who have been abandoned to the streets are barely old enough to walk, let alone take care of themselves. The lucky ones find their way to safe houses for care set up by UNICEF, but the resources for these facilities are limited–even more limited than the supplies needed to treat people with Ebola.

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“I feel so, so sad for these children, they lose their parents and then they have to adapt to a new life. It is our job to make them feel safe and secure,” said Mamie Kpulum in a UNICEF statement.

Kpulum operates a safe house for children in Sierra Leone where she and other staff members encourage an emotionally healing environment through story telling, activities and other aspects of play. The safe house, however, is limited in the number of children it can care for, and even the children who are able to be taken in have uncertain futures.

The safe house isn’t designed to–and doesn’t have the resources to–care for orphans indefinitely.

“The smaller children just need our attention, they need love and we try and show them that, we just want to make them happy,” said Fattu Fomba, a Child Protection Officer from Save the Children, who works at the home. “Sometimes I come back to my office and cry, I wonder what will happen to these children and their future. I have been a counselor for 10 years, and this situation is just so hard. Ebola is a secret war, there are no guns but people are going through the same traumatic events.”