The Other Ebola Victims: Orphans Left Behind

by
Lauren Burgoon
Their parents are dead, their communities don't want them back. What's going to happen to the Ebola orphans?

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa continues along nearly unchecked, killing more than half of the people it infects: some 5,000 in all so far.

The grim death statistics often overlook the other victims of Ebola, the children left orphaned. These young people may not get infected with Ebola, but they're at the mercy of the virus, and its aftermath, nonetheless. 

The anecdotes are horrifying: 

"Victoria, 16, watched eight of her nine siblings die of the deadly virus alongside her guardian aunt, one after another, in their home. Her entire family was wiped out over a period of only four weeks. Yet she had been completely disowned by her extended family."

"In their single-room house, in a Monrovia back street, 16-year-old Promise Cooper and her three younger sisters slept beside their father’s corpse for three days. After hearing rumors about her sick father, neighbors had turned away Promise’s pleas for help lest she pass Ebola on to them."

"With a father lost to the country’s bitter civil war, the girls’ mother had been left to care for them alone. When the mother came down with Ebola in the house, their calls for ambulances were not returned until four days later."

The Ebola orphans aren't just left parentless, but also often shunned by their communities. Ebola still carries a huge stigma in some West African areas, where many fear they'll catch the disease from Ebola orphans. 

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"Ebola is turning a basic human reaction like comforting a sick child into a potential death sentence," UNICEF's Manuel Fontaine says

It's creating a huge, still unaddressed, crisis for children. 

"There is not one major charity doing any work on a large scale for Ebola orphans in Monrovia," Chloe Brett writes for The Guardian. "I know this because I spent all last week not just in the poorest slums where Ebola is spreading but also traipsing around all the big charities’ Monrovia offices, trying to figure out who, if anyone, was doing anything for orphans."

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This is as unfathomable as it is unconscionable. Children already traumatized from grief and left alone can too easily fall prey to human traffickers, abusers and the sheer weight of abject poverty. 

In the U.S., we debate endlessly over an asymptomatic woman's right to leave her home and go on a bike ride. In West Africa, children are sitting with their parents' corpses.

There's been a large international response to fight back against Ebola in West Africa. Progress, despite a recent influx of money, is slow. People might think resources are best aimed at stopping the virus' spread. 

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And it's true, stopping Ebola needs everything the medical and public health communities have to offer. But we cannot let a generation of children wither away because they're stigmatized. Right now, they need food, shelter, clothing and comfort. They'll have long-term needs too, including education, mentorship and skills training so they can sustain themselves.

No one is taking charge. 

It's often a hand-wringing joke to say, but there is no more appropriate time to ask: Won't someone please think of the children?