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Millions of Children Impacted by Ebola Outbreak

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 18 2015 (IPS) - Nine million children live in areas affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, while thousands have lost parents to the virus, according to a new report from The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

More than 24,000 people, including 5,000 children, have been infected with Ebola since the latest strain broke out in January 2014, eventually affecting large areas of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. More than 10,000 people have died.

While reports of new cases have slowed to a trickle, UNICEF has warned Africa and the international community to not become complacent about the virus, and highlighted its devastating effect on children in affected countries.

The ‘Ebola: Getting to zero’ report, released Monday, states the mortality rate for children under age five is 80 per cent, while for children under one year, casualty rates are 95 per cent.

“These children have seen death and suffering beyond their comprehension, UNICEF said.

Up to nine million children live in areas severely affected by the outbreak, described as the most severe in the disease’s history. Five million were deprived of months of education after schools were shut down, while many children did not receive vaccinations.

Medical facilities had “inadequate staffing,” were “poorly equipped,” and “completely unprepared to deal with an outbreak of this nature and scale,” the report stated.

Many parents actually actively avoided healthcare facilities, for fear of contracting the disease.

The report claims children also did not receive vaccinations for other diseases including measles – leading to a confirmed outbreak in Guinea and suspected cases in Liberia – and also impacting the treatment of malaria, malnutrition, HIV and AIDS.

“In Guinea, consultations and hospitalizations were down by about 50 per cent in 2014… In Sierra Leone, the number of children receiving basic immunization fell by 21 per cent and the number of children treated for malaria was down 39 per cent,” UNICEF reported.

The report also stated more than 16,000 children “lost one or both parents, or their primary caregiver” to Ebola. More than 52,000 children also received psychosocial support in the wake of the outbreak.

While the World Health Organisation recently announced Liberia had reported no new cases of Ebola for two consecutive weeks, UNICEF warned complacency should not set in.

“This is definitely not the time to let our guard down,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.

“We need to get to zero cases, and to do this, we must track down every single case and anyone who may have had contact with an infected person.”

New health and preventative safety procedures have been established across the affected areas, with rapid response units ready to address further outbreaks, and greater education for citizens.

The UNICEF report also called for further funding of nutrition treatment centres to address rising malnutrition, support for vaccination programs, improving access to safe water and sanitation; and basic social services, particularly programs to “protect affected populations from stigma and discrimination.”

“Before the outbreak of Ebola in Liberia, this country had enjoyed one of the fastest rates of decline in child mortality,” said Patrick Sijenyi, of UNICEF Liberia’s Child Survival and Development Section.

“For this positive trend to continue it is essential that we stop this outbreak, and invest in stronger health and other social services that are critical to a child’s survival and well-being.”

Follow Josh Butler on Twitter @JoshButler

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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