Why the devastating effects on children will outlast the outbreak
by Leah Selim
Nearly 500,000 children living near the latest outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) face the deadly risk of infection, as well as the fear of losing parents and loved ones. The outbreak, which is the ninth in the country’s history, is currently isolated to the northwestern Equateur Province.
The virus has a prolonged history in DRC – taking its name from the country’s Ebola River, which is next to the village where the first case was reported in 1976. It is spread primarily through contact with the bodily fluids of infected people, and kills about half the people it infects.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, a total of 53 suspected cases and 25 deaths have been reported (as of 30 May 2018). As UNICEF and partners work to contain the deadly virus, here are 4 things you need to know about its impact on children:
- Children are some of the hardest hit by the virus
The 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was the worst in history, with more deaths than all other outbreaks combined. Nearly one fifth of those infected were children. Mortality rates are particularly high among children who have been infected – as high as 95% for those under one year old.
- The effects on children are not just physical
The emotional scars of Ebola can take years to heal. More than 30,000 children lost one or both parents in the 2014-2016 outbreak, and many more saw a loved one die. In some communities, the fear surrounding Ebola is stronger than family ties, and children are rejected by surviving family members. This stigmatization can be isolating for children who are already struggling to cope with incredible hardship and loss.
And there are other invisible effects. In Liberia, more than 70,000 children did not officially exist because their births were not registered during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak. Because there was no record of their births, they could potentially be deprived of essential services like school enrolment, access to health and social services, and protection.
- Children are an essential part of the response
One of the most important things we learned from the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak was the crucial role of communities. In DRC, doctors, health workers, religious leaders, journalists and local radio stations are all playing a part to raise awareness on recognizing early signs and symptoms, and early treatment options.
Children also have a critical role to play. Schools are where children learn how to protect themselves from Ebola through handwashing and avoiding unnecessary contact. Children then talk about what they’ve learned with their families and neighbours, further reinforcing the awareness raising work already taking place in the community.
- UNICEF is on the ground reaching families at risk
Since the start of the outbreak, UNICEF and partners have reached more than 300,000 people with lifesaving information about how to avoid contracting the deadly virus.
Children are at the heart of our response, and we are scaling up prevention efforts in schools across all of the affected areas. This includes installing hand washing units in more than 270 schools and supporting activities to raise awareness for more than 13,000 children.
UNICEF is establishing two child protection committees to help affected children and families. The committees are coordinating counselling and providing psychosocial support kits, which include cloth material, cooking utensils, clothes, soap, mats, buckets, mosquito nets, and food. They are also working to create a network to support children whose families are affected by Ebola.
To date, UNICEF has shipped over 80 tonnes of supplies, including soap, tarpaulins, generators, purification tablets, buckets and chlorine to support water, sanitation and hygiene activities.