Federal officials announced on Tuesday that Ebola, the highly contagious, deadly illness that has ravaged West Africa in recent months, has reached American shores, with the first case diagnosed being a Texas man who recently visited Liberia. The announcement has many Americans worried about the illness for the first time, which makes this a good moment to remember the littlest victims affected worldwide.
At least 3,700 children have lost one or both parents to Ebola in the most severely affected West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. These orphaned children have nowhere to go to escape the largest Ebola outbreak in history, which has infected at least 6,500 people since it was first detected in the spring, according to American health officials.
“Orphans are usually taken in by a member of the extended family, but in some communities the fear surrounding Ebola is becoming stronger than family ties,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF regional director for West and Central Africa, in a statement on Tuesday.
After leaving Liberia, the man diagnosed with the disease in Texas came into contact with a handful of Americans, but health officials are confident they can contain the virus. “I have no doubt that we will control this importation or this case of Ebola so that it does not spread widely in this country," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The population in West Africa is not as fortunate; more than 3,000 casualties have been reported.
Children as young as three have been found left behind in the hospitals where their parents died or have been neglected in their home communities for fear of the disease further spreading, BBC News reports. The women who would normally care for them are infected and dying at a disproportionate rate to men.
Many of these children are missing their mothers. In Liberia, 75 percent of Ebola deaths are women. “Women are the caregivers—if a kid is sick, they say, ‘Go to your mom,’ ” said Julia Duncan-Cassell, Liberia’s minister for gender and development, The Washington Post reports. Exposure is high for women—along with comforting sick children as traditional caretakers, more women work as nurses and prepare funeral rituals.
The children grieving familial losses need extra care and support, but the contagious disease makes providing it dangerous. “Ebola is turning a basic human reaction like comforting a sick child into a potential death sentence,” Fontaine added. Infected or not, the children left behind could face death if they do not get the basic care they once received from their parents.
UNICEF officials project the number of orphaned children to double by mid-October. Officials are working to train 400 mental and social care workers to aid children in Liberia and training 2,500 Ebola survivors, who are now immune to the disease, in Sierra Leone to care for quarantined children.
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