A killing disease
We know there is a deadly virus that has claimed thousands of lives. The disease has been hard on children and left hundreds of orphans in its wake. We know there was a recent outbreak. We just don’t know that its name is Ebola. While the world is focused on COVID-19, another viral disease has devastated families in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thousands of orphans
According to Reuters, the city of Butembo “was one of the epicenters of the last major Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 2,200 people and infected over 1,100 others.” At one point, UNICEF officially registered 1,380 orphan children. As of September 2021, the estimate had risen to 2,770—the number of children who had lost one or both parents as a result of the Ebola outbreak and were living with relatives, in orphanages, or homeless.
What does Ebola do?
Ebola is a violent disease which disarms the immune system and damages internal organs. People suffer from severe vomiting and diarrhea and may, as blood vessels are damaged, bleed from the eyes, ears, or nose. It spreads through contact with bodily fluids. There are multiple strains and researchers are still learning about the virus.
Children are stigmatized
Due to the terrifying nature of the disease, fear has fueled a stigma against those who have outlived it and against children who were left behind by parents that did not. These children are seen as potential carriers of the disease: cursed and contagious. It has led to many being abandoned and the already difficult task of securing kinship care complicated even more.
A recent outbreak that left six dead last month may reinvigorate the fears and stigma. But it will probably do little to reinvigorate the aid to orphans which were forgotten by the government, charities, and overlooked by nearly everyone.
The problem of disease and stigma is not a problem of Ebola orphans in the DRC alone. A study published in November investigated the low treatment adherence of adolescents with HIV in Ethiopia. While the author identified several obstacles, especially for those who were orphaned, one major issue was the fear of stigmatization by friends and kin while medicating, visiting clinics, or collecting antiretroviral drugs.
What’s being done about it?
With regard to COVID-19, the Center for Disease Control in the United States published a guide to preventing and addressing social stigma. Why? Because it seems to be a feature—or perhaps a bug—of how humans respond during these kinds of health crises. Children orphaned on account of COVID-19 may already be facing stigmatization from their peers or relatives. This may be in addition to what many orphans already face just for having lost their parents in the first place.
What the recent Ebola outbreaks, HIV epidemic, and corona pandemic help demonstrate for us here is the need to battle stigmatization in local communities and to prepare to support children for the psychological effects of such treatment by society.
Questions for orphanage workers (Comment below):
What stigmas do some of the children under your supervision face in your local context?
What information would help the community overcome those stigmas?
Bahati, K. S. (2021, December). Congo’s Ebola survivors unite to combat stigma and misinformation. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-congo-health-ebola-feature/congos-ebola-survivors-unite-to-combat-stigma-and-misinformation-idUSKBN2IN0NF
Ebola Virus: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention. (2021). WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/ebola-fever-virus-infection
Number of children orphaned or left unaccompanied by Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo rising fast. (2019, August). UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/number-children-orphaned-or-left-unaccompanied-ebola-democratic-republic-congo
Thomson Reuters Foundation News. (2021, September). Congo’s Ebola orphans work to survive amid trauma and stigma. https://news.trust.org/item/20210916090654-g2vdy/
Tunje, A., Jerene, D., & Kristensson Hallström, I. (2021). Antiretroviral Therapy and Retention in Care Experiences and Needs of Adolescents Living with HIV in Southern Ethiopia. HIV/AIDS – Research and Palliative Care, 999–1007. https://doi.org/10.2147/hiv.s339413
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