Many people understand the significance of an AIDS orphan, but there is now a growing population of Ebola orphans that face a similar set of challenges. As the Ebola epidemic in West Africa rages on, children find themselves without guardians, without shelter, and without food. Over a month ago, the father of Pearlina, a 4 year old girl, had left Pearlina and her mother afraid that he would catch the Ebola virus and die. So Pearlina was left to take care of her mother, but as a 4-year-old girl there wasn’t much she could do. Luckily a health worker found Pearlina and her mother and called for an ambulance. However, minutes later Pearlina watched her mother die in the back of an ambulance on it’s way to a major hospital in Liberia. In all of the chaos, Pearlina was left alone and forgotten in the hospital. Pearlina is one of 2,000 Liberian Ebola orphans, and this is a conservative estimate. The average number of children in a Liberian household is three, meaning that the loss of 2 parents to Ebola or other causes equals 3 or more children becoming orphans. These numbers don’t even factor in Sierra Leone and Guinea. Without shelter, food, and guidance, it is likely that these orphans will become infected or die of malnutrition. A big factor for these children is the stigma of Ebola. No one wants to take care of these children because they assume that they are infected. Many people believe that simply touching these children could be lethal. It is possible that these children are infected, but that doesn’t mean that they should be left to the streets.
While most of the public health and humanitarian efforts are focused on Ebola patients, this growing population of Ebola orphans needs to be addressed. UNICEF has begun coordinating support for these children. In the coming weeks, UNICEF, with the support of the US government and local NGOs, will train hundreds of mental health and social workers to help these children as well as putting together “survival kits,” which include water, food, clothes, and hygiene items. Save the Children, an organization working with the Liberian government, is planning to build orphanages and healthcare facilities strictly for children. Their first healthcare facility is almost completed and will accept children soon. These interventions are important because once a child is orphaned, she will be an orphan for the rest of her life. We need to address this problem as it arises rather then wait for it to be compounded with other challenges.