Thousands of children are faced with the possibility of being homeless orphans if their parents and caregivers die from the Ebola virus. The disease has killed over seven thousand people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The average age of the victims is between 25 and 48 years old, but five thousand people under 15 also died from the disease, according to UNICEF.
The children affected by Ebola immediately become shunned in their communities. Once they or their relatives are affected by the illness, they are forced to leave their homes. UNICEF spokeswoman Sarah Crowe states that family members and friends are not willing to take in the orphans anymore, because the virus is much more contagious than HIV and can be spread through bodily fluids such as saliva. Traditional methods that would usually work on many illnesses are not effective on the Ebola virus.
There are currently very few facilities for the kids once they are diagnosed with Ebola. Most of the time, they end up homeless with nobody to care for them. In response, UNICEF has created a survivors network of people to look after these children. Supporters, such as researcher Kanyean Molton Farley, are helping children and their families financially. Katie Meyer runs Medecins Sans Frontieres, a non-profit Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia. She is working with the Liberian government to turn guest houses into centers to accommodate displaced children.
A small sampling of children affected by Ebola and their personal stories illuminate the issue. Some of the following names have been changed to protect privacy.
1- Harry, a 5-year-old from Monrovia, Liberia, went with his parents to a health center in late September. The two adults were immediately taken into the “red zone,” where only 40 percent of patients leave. Harry was sent into the “green zone” for several days. Caregivers took turns playing with him during their breaks. They gave him crayons, coloring books and paper to color. His dad died later that week and his mom is currently battling the final stages of the Ebola disease. UNICEF found Harry a family of survivors to care for him.
2- Sixteen-year-old Promise Cooper’s troubles started when her mother complained about headaches and severe fever. On her way to the hospital days later, she died. A few weeks later, Cooper’s father, Emmanuel, developed the same sickness, as did her baby brother, Success, who refused to eat anything. After hearing about the Ebola virus on the radio, Cooper washed her hands after caring for her dad and brother. She often told her three younger siblings to play outside.
No one came to check on the family. Not even their grandparents and friends. This immediately turned Cooper into a full-time caregiver because school was out due to the illness. Eventually Success died at home before the ambulance arrived to take him and his father to the hospital. Another little brother, 11-year-old Emmanuel, Jr., got sick, too.
An uncle came by Cooper’s house to drop off some cash without touching the family. She used it to buy plastic bags of drinking water to sell for two dollars. However, no one in the neighborhood would buy them from her. People bleached themselves after the younger Cooper children sat somewhere and kept their own kids from playing with them. Promise Cooper eventually managed to scrape together enough change to take a taxi to the nearest Ebola clinic with her sister. A guard at the clinic’s gates told Cooper and 13-year-old Ruth that their father had died. When the girls got home, Farley came by and took care of them and their brothers. He dropped off some soup and cash and worried about Promise Cooper being taken advantage of by older men in exchange for cash since she was a young teenage girl.
One day, a wonderful thing happened. A photo of Emmanuel, Jr. was on TV as an Ebola survivors. He had been the first in his neighborhood to survive the illness. Sad news came later on that week when Ruth got sick and was sent to the hospital.
The Coopers’ aunt, Helen Kangbo, and her one-year-old daughter also came to the house to care for them. She was abroad when the disease reared its ugly head so she was unaware of the shame it brought on families. Kangbo eventually got ostracized along with everyone else.
Cooper’s prayers were answered when Ruth also recovered from Ebola. She is still weak and is staying with Farley’s family. Cooper still takes precautions to protect her 13-year-old brothers, Benson and Emmanuel, Jr., from getting infected. She warns them to wash their hands after playing with friends and not to touch people too much. She also made a promise to herself not to let her or her family live with strangers.
3- Four-year-old Berlinda Clark’s mother died from Ebola in the ambulance on the way to Redemption Hospital. Berlinda was brought in by Meyer and stayed in the nearly renovated guest house. She became close to a caregiver, 22-year-old Bendu Fayiah, who she called mama. Clark often warned Fayiah not to go into the rain because she believed that is how her mom got sick from the disease. Everything was fine until another orphaned child with the Ebola virus stayed with them, posing a threat to unaffected Clark.
Eventually Fayiah, out of fear of being sick, wore protective clothing and surgical gloves. She even abandoned the girl. Clark vomited and got tested for Ebola. She tested negative and is currently staying with another family.
According to Childfund CEO Nigel Spence, at least 3,700 children have lost their parents to Ebola and the number is expected to increase. These orphans and their families are just one example of the effect Ebola has had on affected populations, who can only hope that someday a cure can be found.
By Stefanie Deji
The Big Story
Photo by jbdodane – Flickr license