Ebola's impact on children | Action Against Hunger

Ebola's impact on children

Children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have faced a year of unimaginable trauma and pain. Action Against Hunger explains...

By Leah Oatway

Mar 23 2015

Like their parents, the children of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - the three countries worst affected by the Ebola epidemic - have spent the past year living under stress, trauma and the daily threat of contracting a deadly virus.

They need special support and attention. The psychological impact of these events cannot be ignored.

"Children were exposed to direct risks - namely Ebola, as well as secondary risks – including becoming orphans, seeing members of their families infected, leaving their community, being stigmatized or quarantined,”  said Gustave Vanda Mulenda, head of Action Against Hunger’s mental health programmes and care practices in Monrovia, Liberia. “This has considerably weakened them. Specifically, we have noticed that their vulnerability to malnutrition has increased.”

In a society where being a child was difficult before the epidemic, fear of the disease has undermined the sense of collective responsibility for children and has left many isolated. The general ban on human contact enforced within communities to prevent the spread of Ebola, has prevented children, even small ones, being able to play or be comforted when they need it.

The challenge of this year will have long-term consequences on their development and future.

Separations

Many children in Ebola-affected countries now find themselves alone. In Sierra Leone, there are already more than 8,000 orphans. Separated from parents killed by Ebola, or who have decided to avoid affected areas for fear of contamination, these children have not always found the comfort and support such uprooting needs.

Extended families are afraid to take care of the orphans of Ebola-affected parents or vulnerable children for fear of being contaminated or stigmatised by the community.

Fear, sadness, anxiety

Around 5,000 children have died in Ebola-affected communities. Others live in fear: confronted daily with the epidemic and its painful events – the sadness on the faces of adults they know and the devastating news of more death and suffering. They have witnessed the sudden death of family members, seen medical staff dressed in frightening looking suits take family members to unknown destinations not knowing if or when they will ever return. This all has a profound psychological impact on young minds.

Schools have been closed and children’s movements and interactions with friends are limited. They have been deprived of simple ways to manage their stress. In the three most affected countries, more than five million children are out of school.

On top of the pain of losing friends, brothers and sisters, they often face stigma and discrimination in their community or in health facilities. Much needed psychological and social support is often missing.

"They are often left alone to fend for themselves when they most need to be comforted," said Mulenda.

Deteriorating living conditions, food insecurity

The Ebola outbreak has also had a negative impact on the psychological and social well-being and nutritional status of children. In many communities, schools serve specific social functions in addition to education – some serve meals, for example. Being unable to access school in addition to the closure of markets and travel restrictions in affected areas has caused economic disruption and reduced families’ income. Some have been forced to go in search of food for themselves, and the number of children at risk of severe malnutrition has increased.

Exclusion, stigmatisation

Community cohesion has given way to social stigma and discrimination. Indeed, when a suspected case of Ebola is identified, all family members are forced to stay indoors for 21 days and are put under observation. The community members are encouraged to avoid interaction with family quarantined. So parents sometimes choose not to declare that they are sick, increasing the risk of infection for children.

It is particularly important to support both survivors when they return home and the community. Surviving children are feared, discriminated against and threatened. They are marginalized and socially isolated.

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