DAKAR/GENEVA (Reuters) - Two days after his mother died of Ebola at a clinic in the Liberian capital Monrovia last month, four-year-old John was put into foster care so he could be monitored for the disease.
John’s new guardian, an Ebola survivor, was immune to the deadly virus and happy to look after him. But when neighbors heard of the plan, they refused to allow them home fearing the boy might infect them too.
John’s case highlights the plight of some 3,700 children in West Africa that have lost one or both parents to Ebola and now face abandonment and stigma, according to U.N. child agency UNICEF. The figure could double by mid-October, it said.
Children represent just 15 percent of the recorded 3,091 Ebola deaths recorded mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, below the proportion of the population they represent, according to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics.
But that number masks the broader impact the disease is having on children. Fear of contagion means many orphans, even those who test negative, are being abandoned.
The dangerous nature of the disease means aid workers are having to rethink how they look after them.
“In some communities, the fear surrounding Ebola is becoming stronger than family ties,” said UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa Manuel Fontaine.
“These children urgently need special attention and support; yet many of them feel unwanted and even abandoned.”
With disease experts warning that tens or even hundreds of thousands of people may be killed by Ebola before it is snuffed out, aid workers are drawing comparisons to challenges children faced during wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s.
The threat of infection means responses used by communities and aid workers during those wars cannot simply be repeated, as orphaned children must themselves be monitored in case they have contracted the disease.
“You cannot just set up a center and put 400 children in it like we used to do. It is much more complicated than that,” said Andrew Brooks, UNICEF’s regional head of child protection, who worked in the region during the war years.
Six months after Ebola was detected in remote southeast Guinea, the disease has spread across most of neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone, leading to increasingly stark warnings over the death toll and longer-term economic impact.
Foreign governments are gradually rolling out their responses. Washington pledged this month to deploy 3,000 U.S. troops to build 17 treatment centers and train thousands of medical staff, but these forces are arriving slowly.
UNICEF, meanwhile, says it has only received 25 percent of the $200 million it needs to help children and families affected by the crisis. Fontaine appealed for “more courage, more creativity, and far more resources.”
In Macenta in southeast Guinea, near where Ebola was first confirmed in March, a crèche has been set up for children whose parents are being treated at an Ebola center run by medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).
Saa Sabas, an Ebola survivor volunteering with MSF, collects footballs, rattles and dolls for the children’s entertainment. “We’ve set up this crèche so they’re not infected by their relatives. But they need to be monitored by people like me too,” Sabas said.
Adults who have survived Ebola have suffered from stigma in their communities. UNICEF hopes to tap into their experiences to increase the number of people ready to look after children.
“There are probably going to be thousands of them soon and they seem to be very keen to be part of this,” Fontaine said.
UNICEF says that over the next six months, it hopes to train 2,500 Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone to care for children.
Schools across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone delayed re-opening after the summer holidays to prevent further infections.
Sierra Leone’s government says at least 22 teachers have died from Ebola, highlighting how the virus is wrecking fragile social services. Hundreds of healthcare workers have also been infected across the region.
In response to delays to the school year, the Freetown government plans to broadcast classes on the radio.
“It will not be like the classroom but that is the best option we have for now,” said Sylvester Mehew, chairman of an teachers’ association.
Additional reporting by Fabien Offner in Macenta, Guinea, and Josephus Olu-Mammah in Freetown; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Robin Pomeroy