The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has caused quite a stir, inciting fear globally and dangerous panic in some infected areas. There are now over 3000 people infected and more than 1500 have died, making this the worst Ebola outbreak in history. To make matters worse, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said it could last another six to nine months, with the potential for cases to exceed 20,000.
With human testing planned for a new possible vaccine, and the experimental treatment ZMapp showing promising results in monkeys, there is hope of a breakthrough to prevent future outbreaks. But this will not help the more than one million West Africans who have already been negatively impacted, or the millions more who could be affected before this current outbreak is contained. Indeed, we do not yet fully understand what all the long term consequences will be.
What I have found especially troubling is the fact that children are largely missing from the discourse. I see images of children and occasional anecdotal stories about a sick child or a child who has become orphaned, but there is a real lack of targeted information about how this outbreak is affecting West Africa’s children. I have not even been able to find adequate statistics about the number of children infected, let alone the children who have lost parents, access to services or faced other indirect consequences that can be catastrophic to a young life and society as a whole.
In emergency situations like this, children are especially vulnerable because of their dependence on adult caregivers and social services. This is especially true for children living in poverty. Lack of access to basics like soap and water are real drivers of this outbreak, and children suffering from stunting or malnutrition have compromised immune systems that make them more likely to die from Ebola exposure. Cultural expectations of women and girls to serve as primary caregivers for sick family members put them at greater risk of exposure, which in turn leaves all children at greater risk of becoming sick because of their constant close proximity to parents and other caregivers.
Beyond the children who have or will contract Ebola, there are millions more affected in other ways. It is unknown how many children will be left orphaned, abandoned, or separated from their families as a consequence of this outbreak. If a mother is placed in quarantine, what happens to her children? If a family’s primary breadwinner dies, who will buy food and other necessities? Who will keep those children from becoming laborers to survive?
Panic in many affected areas has created instability which leads to violence. Who protects children when systems break down? Access to basic health care and immunization campaigns have been widely disrupted because of the strain on already weak health systems. Children sick for any reason can be denied care because of Ebola fears. West African children are already at greater risk of dying from other conditions like malaria, cholera, malnutrition and diarrhea, so what happens when they can’t even access the limited health services they had before?
After the panic has subsided and headlines move on to the next big story, I wonder what will happen to the millions of children indirectly affected by this outbreak. I fear they will become the invisible victims of Ebola, denied the opportunity to grow and reach their full potential, to help their nations prosper. This is why we must act now to ensure that the needs of marginalized children are recognized, planned for, and not forgotten when the outbreak ends.