The outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea affected 9 million children. Whether they lost their parents, saw the despair caused by the killer virus or witnessed how it ravages people firsthand, the impact on children is far-reaching and long-lasting.
“I don’t know what to tell him,” said Mary, a 15-year-old girl from Sierra Leone who lost her mother to Ebola, in the report. “How can I explain death to a 4-year-old when I barely just understood it myself? This wasn’t supposed to be my responsibility.”
A new report from the U.N.’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) documents the impacts of Ebola on children. It estimates 5,000 children died during the outbreak and another 16,000 lost a primary caregiver. And then there are the 5 million children who missed significant periods of school.
Fortunately, things are turning around. Students returned to school in Guinea in January, Liberia in February and Sierra Leone is expected to re-open schools at the end of March. UNICEF is hopeful that the return to the classroom will “provide a sense of normalcy, stability and hope to children who have lived surrounded by death and misery.” The agency is pushing to both take the steps needed to end the outbreak and to return life back to normal as soon as possible.
“The outbreak will not be over until there are zero cases, and every single contact has been traced and monitored. We cannot afford to let our guard down,” said Barbara Bentein, UNICEF’s global emergency coordinator for Ebola, in a press release. “At the same time, basic services need to be re-established safely and responsibly, using the assets of the response.”
The report makes special notice of the role of local communities in responding to the outbreak. It cites the fact that the majority of the children orphaned by Ebola are being cared by extended family. Working with communities has been valuable in terms of getting sick people to seek care and reducing stigma associated with Ebola. It found that 72 percent of Liberians surveyed say health centers will provide the best care for people with Ebola – a significant number when considering how many sick people were kept home during the onset of the outbreak.
“We usually go from house to house, especially in the villages, educating communities on the need to show love and acceptance to survivors,” says Ibrahim Vibbi, a Sierra Leonean volunteer, to UNICEF.
The hope is to keep up he momentum. Rains will arrive in April, bringing more malaria-carrying mosquitoes and adding to existing issues such as poor sanitation, and access to goods and services. UNICEF is pushing for donors to continue supporting the countries so that the recovery effort will see the three countries better off than before the outbreak started.
“By acting now we can capitalize on momentum triggered by the Ebola response to galvanize long-term support for the children and communities who already have suffered so much,” said Bentein in the report.