The Ebola virus is relentless and devastating. UNICEF and partners are continuing to ramp up their response.
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 have accounted for a significant proportion of those infected with Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 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.
On 18 November 2020, UNICEF welcomed an announcement by the Government of DRC confirming the end of the latest Ebola outbreak in Equateur province in the northwest of the country. The outbreak was the 11th to hit the country since 1976, and the second in Equateur in less than two years. In June 2020, the Government announced the end of a 23-month long outbreak in the east of the country that had killed more than 2,280 people.
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 formulated specifically for them.
- 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, and, for those who need it, school fees and other material aid to enable children to go back to school – a critical step for a child’s overall well-being.
- Virtually all children affected by Ebola need help to counter the debilitating effects of the stigma and discrimination that taints them, 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 prevent the spread of Ebola. UNICEF is supporting the establishment of community “animation cells”, and together with partners UNICEF is 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. 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.
Preventing and Controlling Infections
To stop the spread of the virus, UNICEF provides hygiene kits to households affected by Ebola, and trains and assists local hygiene teams to decontaminate homes, public places and health facilities when a new case has been confirmed. Such measures are adapted for specific local contexts.
UNICEF is also implementing prevention activities by ensuring water, sanitation and hygiene services are available in health care facilities, schools and communities by establishing handwashing stations, temperature control checks, distributing hygiene kits and organizing outreach activities promoting good hygiene practices.
Supporting physical and mental health
UNICEF psychosocial support teams are often the first to be in contact with families affected by Ebola or the death of a family member. These teams help 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. Such activities play a major role in the success of the response by ensuring that families accept interventions that will help prevent 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 timely referrals to health facilities.
UNICEF has also built and supported nurseries to care for children whose parents have been admitted to treatment centres. Here, UNICEF-trained Ebola survivors take care of children while their parents being treated and receive targeted nutritional care, for example, breast-milk substitutes when a mother can’t breastfeed.
Preventing Ebola in schools
Schoolchildren are being taught how to protect themselves from Ebola through handwashing and by avoiding unnecessary contact. UNICEF’s strategy focuses on encouraging children 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
- Providing infrared thermometers and handwashing kits
- Supplying cabins for entry checks at schools
- Issuing documentation and protocols for prevention, guidance, and management of suspected Ebola cases in schools
Strengthening health systems
Even before the recent epidemic, the region had been experiencing chronic emergencies. Lack of investment in infrastructure had weakened social services and community systems, exacerbating the Ebola outbreak. In addition, Ebola outbreaks have also disrupted routine vaccination campaigns. UNICEF is therefore working on rehabilitating facilities to ensure a quality health care is available for children and mothers, which in turn helps to rebuild trust between health care workers and communities.