In West Africa, UN launches strengthened response as Ebola shatters lives, orphans children

Thirteen year-old Francis from Sierra Leone lost his parents, sister and grandmother to Ebola. At least 3,700 children in West Africa have lost one or both parents to the disease since the start of the outbreak. Photo: UNICEF/Jo Dunlop

Thirteen year-old Francis from Sierra Leone lost his parents, sister and grandmother to Ebola. At least 3,700 children in West Africa have lost one or both parents to the disease since the start of the outbreak. Photo: UNICEF/Jo Dunlop

Ghana, 30 September 2014 – Amid a climbing death toll and widespread panic, the Ebola outbreak continues to ravage West Africa leaving thousands of orphaned children in its wake, an official for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned today, as a fortified UN mission arrived in the region to confront and contain the growing crisis.

“Thousands of children are living through the deaths of their mother, father or family members from Ebola. These children urgently need special attention and support; yet many of them feel unwanted and even abandoned,” Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, said in a news release.

“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,” he added.

Since its outbreak earlier this year, Ebola has claimed more than 3,000 lives while infecting over 6,500 people in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. However, alongside the devastating physiological effects of the virus, the outbreak has also ignited panic and fear across the affected areas with some victims, and their children, being spurned by their local communities.

“Ebola is turning a basic human reaction like comforting a sick child into a potential death sentence. The vast majority of children affected by Ebola are still left without appropriate care,” Mr. Fontaine explained.

“We cannot respond to a crisis of this nature and this scale in the usual way. We need more courage, more creativity, and far, far more resources.”

According to preliminary reports obtained by UNICEF, the Ebola death toll in the three affected countries continues to rise, suggesting a spike in the numbers of orphaned children in the past few weeks and the likelihood that they will double by mid-October.

As the orphaned children of Ebola victims confront the devastation left by the disease, UNICEF has announced that it is accelerating its response and will roll out both traditional and new ways to help provide them with the necessary physical and emotional healing.

These include the training of 400 additional mental health and social workers in Liberia; the training of 2,500 Ebola survivors – now immune to the disease – to provide care to quarantined children in Sierra Leone; and providing an estimated 60,000 children in Guinea living among Ebola-affected communities with psychosocial support.

At the same time, the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) continues to establish its headquarters in Accra, Ghana, to lead the world body’s efforts in stopping the outbreak, treating the infected, ensuring essential services, preserving stability and preventing any further outbreaks.

“The situation that Ebola has created is very grave. It is more than just a public health crisis, it has become a multi-dimensional crisis with serious risks affecting the health, economic, political, humanitarian spheres,” Anthony Banbury, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of UNMEER, told a news conference in Accra today.

“The rate of infections is growing exponentially. The total number of cases is doubling every three weeks. The number of deaths now is greater from this outbreak than in all previous Ebola outbreaks in the history of the world,” he added.

“The world has recognized the risk to the people of the three affected countries, the sub-region, the continent and the world.”

Mr. Banbury thanked the Government of Ghana for its willingness to support the Mission’s work and noted that while UNMEER would be headquartered in the Ghanaian capital, it would maintain strong operational presences in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“Our Mission will work on establishing operational capacities in the countries concerned – providing vehicles for transportation, supplies for the health workers, and other needs identified by the national governments,” he stated.

“Where there are gaps in their plan, we will work with partners to make sure someone is filling those gaps to stop the spread of Ebola as soon as possible,” added the Special Representative, who will travel to Liberia tomorrow and then on to Sierra Leone and Guinea.