Ebola is terrifying for adults – but even more so for children.
Children exposed to Ebola witness death and suffering, lose loved ones, are infected themselves, or have to spend weeks in isolation because they have had contact with someone infected with the virus.
Children account for a significant proportion of those infected with Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the latest outbreak has been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization. Preventing infection among children must therefore be at the heart of the Ebola response.
The effects of Ebola aren’t just physical. The stigmatization can be isolating for children who are already struggling to cope with incredible hardship and loss, and the emotional scars can take years to heal.
Preventing infection among children must be at the heart of the Ebola response.
Working alongside the government and partners, UNICEF is continuing to scale up its response to control and prevent the spread of the disease, and ultimately stop the outbreak; reduce Ebola-related deaths among those infected; and provide protection, alleviate suffering, and give assistance to affected children and families.
The Ebola crisis is further exacerbating the vulnerability of communities already grappling with conflict, displacement and disease outbreaks. Together with partners, UNICEF is therefore addressing critical needs of communities beyond Ebola, providing health, water sanitation and hygiene, nutrition, and other essential services in the Ebola affected areas.
Why Ebola is so devastating for children
- Children infected with Ebola need comprehensive child-specific care, including medical, nursing, nutritional, psychosocial and rehabilitation services. Already malnourished children require treatment with food specifically formulated for children.
- Children who are separated, often abruptly and brutally, from their parents and/or care providers due to Ebola need dedicated care and attention while their parents undergo treatment, including nutritional support for infants whose mothers are infected with Ebola and are therefore unable to be breastfed.
- Children who are orphaned need longer term care and support. This includes mediation with extended families that refuse to take them in; health and nutrition support to make sure they stay healthy; and, for those who need it, school fees and other material aid to enable children to go back to school, which is so critical to their overall well-being.
- Virtually all of them need help to counter the debilitating effects of the stigma and discrimination that taints children affected by Ebola, so that they are accepted, valued and loved by their families and communities.
How UNICEF is helping fight Ebola
UNICEF’s Ebola response focuses on a cross-cutting community-based approach. This includes engaging with communities; providing safe water and improving sanitation and hygiene as part of infection prevention and control; boosting psychosocial support, education and child protection services; and providing assistance with nutrition. UNICEF and partners are:
Engaging with communities
Communication and community engagement are essential to stop and prevent the spread of Ebola. UNICEF is supporting the establishment of community committees, and together with partners we are engaging with trusted individuals and networks, including religious leaders, youth and women’s groups, business leaders, as well as Ebola survivors themselves. Survivor testimonies help to reduce fear and encourage people to seek early treatment. The interpersonal communication is reinforced by mass communication, including regular programmes on local radio stations.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, UNICEF is working to bring together social and political influencers, community leaders and members of armed groups to allow Ebola response teams to work within communities in a safer and more trusting environment.
Supporting physical and mental health
UNICEF and partners are providing critical support to those affected by Ebola, to health facilities and to schools. This includes providing supplies for handwashing, personal protection, waste management, cleaning and decontamination, as well as thermometers to screen for fever – a key symptom of the disease.
To help with the care of patients in Ebola treatment centres, UNICEF is also incorporating teams of nutritionists and psychosocial workers who are providing individualized, specialized nutritional and psychosocial care for children and adults who are suspected or confirmed to have the contracted the virus.
Based on lessons learned from the 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa, UNICEF and partners are providing psychosocial support, helping to ensure children’s well-being and get them back to school.
UNICEF psychosocial support teams are often the first to be in contact with families affected by the disease or the death of a member. They help the families through the difficult process of accepting the transfer to a treatment facility, agreeing to the disinfection of their household, or accepting a Safe and Dignified Burial. In this way, these teams play a major role in the success of the response by ensuring that families accept the interventions that will interrupt the chain of transmission of the virus.
UNICEF and partners are also providing care for people who have been in contact with infected people, helping to protect their well-being, provide early detection of the disease, and a timely referral to health facilities.
Fighting other disease outbreaks
Ebola isn’t the only health threat facing the Democratic Republic of Congo. By mid-July, around 2,000 deaths due to measles had been reported across the country in 2019.
Some of the early symptoms of Ebola – fever, redness around the eyes, diarrhoea – are virtually indistinguishable from those of measles, malaria or cholera – all of which are prevalent, especially in severely congested displacement sites.
To prevent a potentially massive loss of life, the Ministry of Health, with the support of UNICEF and Médecins Sans Frontières, launched a measles vaccination campaign in July to vaccinate 67,000 children in Ituri. The Ebola outbreak means the measles vaccination campaign must incorporate extra measures to protect against infection, as well as meticulous triage.
Preventing Ebola in schools
Schoolchildren are being taught how to protect themselves from Ebola through handwashing and by avoiding unnecessary contact. The strategy focuses on encouraging them to talk about what they’ve learned with their families and neighbours, further reinforcing the awareness raising work already taking place in the community.
Other Ebola prevention measures being supported by UNICEF and partners include:
- Mapping schools to identify their proximity to confirmed cases;
- Training students, teachers, inspectors and parents’ associations, among others, on Ebola prevention in schools, including water and hygiene practices, psychosocial support in classrooms;
- Providing infrared thermometers and handwashing kits in schools including clean water;
- Supplying cabins for entry checking at schools;
- Issuing documentation and protocols for prevention, guidance, and management of suspected Ebola cases in school.
By early September 2019, UNICEF and partners had trained more than 32,400 teachers on how to teach children about Ebola prevention and how to make schools a protective environment for children, and reached more than 928,000 students with vital information about Ebola.
Helping neighbouring countries prepare
The risk of Ebola spreading in the region remains very high, but the quick and effective response to imported cases in the densely populated city of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Uganda have demonstrated the importance of investing in preparedness.
In neighbouring Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan and Uganda, UNICEF is scaling up readiness by focusing on:
1) Risk communication, social mobilization and community engagement to inform and protect local populations;
2) Infection prevention and control, and access to safe water and sanitation in communities, health facilities and schools;
3) Access to health services, Ebola-related supplies, and training for health workers;
4) Leadership and coordination assistance in prevention and preparedness.
In South Sudan, UNICEF is focusing on and engaging populations that are most at risk in the areas bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. Between January and July 2019, for example, UNICEF and partners had reached more than 850,000 people through 450 trained front-line community mobilizers. UNICEF and partners had also reached two million people with Ebola prevention messages by 18 radio stations in six languages.