NAIROBI – Attacked by a virus that takes much more than lives, Ebola-infected minors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are forced to face difficult situations like leaving school, losing parents or being isolated from the outside world.
“This is a disease that turns the lives of children upside down and often devastates entire families,” UNICEF’s representative in the African country Edouard Beigbeder said.
Everything that is normal and routine when a child gets sick – being cared for, comforted, hugged, washed by your parents – becomes a death sentence when a child is infected by Ebola,” Beigbeder added, noting that direct contact with an infected relative is one of the main forms of infection.
The virus has killed at least 527 children, nearly one third of the total death toll that amounts to 1,888, according to the latest figures released by the Congolese Health Ministry on Aug. 10.
Ebola not only disrupts the parent-child relationship of those affected, but also imposes psychological consequences and a strong social stigma.
“An outbreak of measles, malaria or communicable diseases such as tuberculosis has a much higher incidence, but Ebola is devastating from a physical and psychological point of view,” said Ricardo Agora, a psychiatrist at Physicians World.
Many children witness the death of their siblings, parents and grandparents or a person who normally looks after, feeds and plays with them.
At least 1,185 minors have been orphaned to date due to this epidemic, which is considered the deadliest Ebola outbreak in the country’s history.
Another 1,939 children have been separated from their parents.
PRECARIOUS SANITARY SYSTEM
Apart from the social and psychological outcomes, Ebola strikes education and health in the DRC, where both systems are already precarious and pediatric care is almost non-existent.
The epidemic interrupts the schooling of many children in Ebola-affected areas, with schools intermittently closed and parents reluctant to send their children to school out of fear of being infected or because they should take care of an infected family member.
It also seriously impacts healthcare services such as restricting regular medical care.
“When children show symptoms of Ebola, there are often problems accessing health services. Chronic conflict has shut down many health centers in the communities affected by Ebola,” Dr. Xavier Crespin said.
This Ebola outbreak is located in the conflict-affected provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, where several militia groups operate.
“But when facilities are open, we’re seeing young children arriving very sick and often too late to be saved,” Crespin pointed out.
This Ebola outbreak was announced on Aug. 1 last year, two months after the DRC’s government declared an end to another outbreak in the west of the country.
It became the second-worst ever recorded with 1,888 deaths, and 2,816 confirmed cases, according to the latest figures.
The worst case in history so far is when the virus killed over 11,000 people in West Africa between 2014 and 2016.
“It goes against all instincts of parents not to touch their sick child and instead, to trust strangers to cure their loved ones,” Beigbeder concluded.