Liberia's women, children bear brunt of Ebola epidemic

Monrovia (AFP) - Exhausted and unable to process her loss, Olivia Clark turns away in silence as her dead baby is disinfected and loaded onto a truck by a team of Ebola specialists.

Aaron, just 18 months old, slipped away a few hours earlier, too young to fight the deadly virus amplifying inside his tiny body.

It is likely that he was infected by his father, Olivia's husband, who died at their home in the Liberian capital Monrovia two weeks earlier.

"Even if I look at him, what can I do for him? I am waiting for death myself. I no longer have tears for this. I think the best thing is to wait for Ebola to make me join my husband and my son," she says.

Although they are not supposed to let the unending tragedy get to them, several of the Red Cross workers who will bury Aaron cannot hide their despair.

"I am human too my brother," one tells AFP, voice wavering as his eyes fill up.

Olivia had taken Aaron to hospital after she noticed his fever and doctors had sent her home with some pills.

By then he had stopped breastfeeding and, eventually, ceased moving at all.

Even if his condition had been something less deadly than Ebola fever, he was hardly in surroundings conducive to recovery.

After her husband died, Olivia had been banished from the family home by neighbours worried that she would infect them.

Suddenly alone in the world, she took Aaron to a half-constructed concrete building with no windows, water or electricity, sleeping among muddy puddles that gathered in the rain and swatting away mosquitoes.

"We asked her to go in the unfinished house to sleep with her baby because when the husband died the house was not disinfected," Ahmed Folay, a community youth leader tells AFP.

"The community is helping her with food and water. That’s all we can do."

- 2,000 Ebola orphans -

Although she has not been seen by a doctor, Olivia almost certainly has Ebola.

The tropical virus, transmitted through contact with infected bodily fluids, has killed more than 2,600 people in four countries since the start of the year -- more than half of them in Liberia.

The outbreak is taking a particularly devastating toll on women, who face greater exposure to the deadly pathogen, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Liberia's health ministry has reported that three-quarters of those infected or killed by Ebola are women.

The contamination rates appear to result from the roles women disproportionately occupy -– including cross-border traders and health workers, according to HRW.

Women are also more likely to take care of the sick and wash and prepare bodies for burial.

Pregnant women may also be at increased risk because of their more frequent contact with health workers, another high-risk group.

Another less well known danger, according to the WHO, is that men who have recovered from Ebola can still spread the virus through their semen for up to seven weeks, further endangering female sexual partners.

HRW issued an appeal to the governments of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia on Monday to ensure that prevention efforts address the particular vulnerability of women.

"Efforts to educate communities and remove the stigma around the disease will go a long way toward making women feel comfortable reaching out to the proper authorities for help," it said.

"Such education efforts could also encourage more equitable household decision-making and the sharing of care-giving activities."

Children, too, are being particularly hard hit by the epidemic, says the United Nations children's fund, which estimates that Liberia alone now has 2,000 Ebola orphans.

"It is really quite heartbreaking to see the effect that this has on children and their families," Sarah Crowe, head of UNICEF's crisis communication in Liberia, told a recent news conference.

"Children are seeing their family members and relatives taken away by people in effectively astronaut suits... and the effect is deeply distressing," she told a news conference in Geneva.

- 'Children don't deserve this' -

Many children who have lost family members to Ebola face the "deep stigma" suffered by Olivia and Aaron, Crowe said, meaning they are often rejected and forced to roam the streets.

Aaron will not be buried straight away.

First, the Red Cross team must make a stop at the overstretched Redemption hospital in Monrovia's New Kru Town suburb, where several doctors and nurses have died treating Ebola patients.

"For a week now we have been receiving more patients. The numbers are on the increase," say nurse Alfred Gaye.

"Yesterday we registered 60 new cases. And as you can see, they are still coming in numbers."

A woman who has not been able to secure a bed lies on the floor, blinking, uncomprehending, as the Red Cross team zips up 15 bodies.

The team is ready to load its grim cargo when it is asked to wait for an ambulance bringing in more patients, one of whom has died on the way.

By the time they pack up and head for the crematorium, they have 18 bodies, the eldest more than 65 years Aaron's senior.

"Taking children's bodies is one of the worst and most painful things in my daily work," says Red Cross team leader Kiyea Friday.

"These are innocent people. They don't deserve this."

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