Ebola Orphans Focus of Aid Groups as Newest Outbreak Victims

Aug 19, 2014 10:29 am ET

(Updates with comment from Unicef from ninth paragraph.)

Aug. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Orphans whose families were killed by Ebola are becoming a tragic legacy of the deadly outbreak in four West African nations, say relief organizations struggling to care for the children who may themselves be infected.

They are “the poorest of the poor,” said Father Jorge Crisafulli of the nonprofit Catholic organization Salesian Missions. The group was asked to provide care for the orphans by the government of Sierra Leone and local staff are deciding today on a plan of action.

Besides immediate needs such as food, the growing number of children whose families have been decimated by Ebola will likely face long-term stigma and discrimination in the future as aid groups try to reintegrate them into the community, according to Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

The outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and, most recently, Nigeria, has sickened 2,240 people, killing at least 1,229 through Aug. 16, according to the World Health Organization. The current epidemic, the worst on record, has strained the resources of governments and aid groups seeking to help the children, Crisafulli said.

“There are already 70 in need of immediate attention,” Crisafulli said of the orphans in Sierra Leone. “The number will increase.”

‘Sick Bay’

As it does, he said, feeding the children and providing adequate medical care will be an increasing problem. “We are asking the government what they can do,” Crisafulli said in an e-mail. “But they told us that it is very little.”

Salesian Missions said it may house the Ebola orphans in a school in Lungi, a town that’s home to the country’s only international airport. They can’t be brought into pre-existing shelters for fear they’re infected, he said.

“A sick bay will be prepared and equipped in case that children present symptoms like fever, vomiting or diarrhea,” Crisafulli said.

In neighboring Liberia, also hit hard by Ebola, Unicef is trying to find families to take in children who have lost parents to the disease, said Sheldon Yett, the aid group’s Liberia representative. Unicef has 92 workers in the country.

“Children belong with families; they don’t belong in institutions,” he said. “But we know that children are really stigmatized by Ebola. How do we convince families to take these kids in?”

Vaccinations Thwarted

Because so many health-care workers have been affected by the outbreak, many children aren’t getting vaccinated for other diseases, and fear of Ebola is keeping many away from medical centers.

“This emergency goes beyond Ebola itself,” Yett said. “We need to ensure that children don’t die from preventable diseases because they’re not getting the support they need from health centers.”

The Salesians are calling for more local volunteers to help take care of the orphans, Crisafulli said.

“I know that there are already young people on the ground ready to offer their time, their talents, and even their lives to do something for those who are suffering,” he said. “They say that it is better to die doing something good for others than to die out of fear, watching the news on TV.”

Salesian Missions, run by Salesian priests and nuns, hires local people to help operate their programs. The missionary organization has operated in Sierra Leone since 1979, according to spokeswoman Hannah Gregory, who wasn’t able to say how many people are working in the affected countries today.

Stretched Organizations

The number of new Ebola cases has been in the triple digits in the last three updates from the WHO, with 128 infections reported on Aug. 13, 152 on Aug. 15, and 113 today. Liberia has the most new cases. About 55 percent of those sickened have died, compared with about 60 percent earlier in the outbreak and as many as 90 percent in previous ones.

Relief organizations including Salesian Missions have said their resources are already being stretched to the limit by the epidemic, even as the World Food Programme has predicted that about 1 million people in the region will need food assistance in the coming months.

“The elastic is at the end of its extendability,” said Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders, at a press conference in Geneva last week. “Some other people need to step up to the plate. We need to have a response by international organizations and states.”

Liu said that the outbreak may take another 6 months to be brought under control. Meanwhile, Liberia’s health ministry said it has only a fraction of the body bags, chlorine powder and disposable protective clothing that it needs.

“The money has been slow in coming in,” Unicef’s Yett said. “The government of Liberia needs tremendous support. They’re facing an extremely challenging situation here.”