Thu, Dec 18, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Ebola is leaving young orphans asking: ‘Do you want me?’

UN officials say more than 3,500 children have been infected with the fatal disease, and at least 1,200 have died, but for those that survive the outlook remains bleak

By Jeffrey Gettleman  /  NY Times News Service, PORT LOKO, Sierra Leone

Sweetie Sweetie had no choice.

Her father had just died of Ebola. So had her sister. Her mother was vomiting blood and fading fast.

When the ambulance arrived and her mother climbed in, Sweetie Sweetie climbed in, too. Ebola had been like a pox on her entire house, and even though the young girl looked fine, with no symptoms, nobody in her village, even relatives, wanted to take her. With nowhere else to go, she followed her mother all the way into the red zone of an Ebola clinic and spent more than two weeks in a biohazard area where the only other healthy people were wearing moon suits.

As her mother grew sicker, Sweetie Sweetie urged her to take her pills. She tried to feed her. She washed her mother’s soiled clothes, not especially well, but nurses said they were moved by the effort. After all, they think Sweetie Sweetie is only four. Healthcare workers did not even know her real name, which is why they called her Sweetie Sweetie.

After her mother died, the young girl stood outside the clinic’s gates looking around with enormous brown eyes. There was no one to pick her up. She was put on the back of a motorbike and taken to a group home, whose bare, dim hallways she now wanders alone. Social workers are trying to find someone to adopt her, and Sweetie Sweetie seems to know she is up for grabs.

On a recent day she asked a visitor: “Do you want me?”

Ebola has been wretched for children. More than 3,500 have been infected and at least 1,200 have died, UN officials estimate. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the most-afflicted nations, have shut down schools in an attempt to check the virus, and legions of young people are now being drafted into hard labor by their impoverished parents. Little boys who should be sitting in a classroom are breaking rocks by the side of the road; little girls struggle under gigantic loads of bananas on their heads. This was always true to some degree, but social workers say there are more children, especially teenagers, on the streets than ever before, which could lead to an increase in crime and adolescent pregnancies. When the schools do reopen, there will probably be many vacant seats.

However, the worst off, by far, are the Ebola orphans. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that across the region there might be 10,000 of them. Many are stigmatized and shunned by their own communities.

“If there’s an earthquake or a war, and you lose a mother or a father, an aunt will take care of you,” said Roeland Monasch, head of UNICEF’s office in Sierra Leone. “But this is different. These children aren’t being taken in by extended family. This isn’t like the AIDS orphans.”

People in hard-hit Ebola areas see children as mini time bombs. They do not wash their hands very often, they constantly touch people, they break all the Ebola rules. Something as simple as changing a diaper becomes a serious risk because the virus is spread through bodily fluids.

“Younger children are believed to be more contagious,” Monasch said.

Even if that is not true, the stigma remains, and many families have been reluctant to absorb children from Ebola-stricken households because of worries that those children might sicken their own.

Sierra Leone, which now has more cases of Ebola than anywhere else, was already a profoundly difficult place for a child. Nine out of 10 girls undergo genital mutilation, one of the highest rates in the world, and during the civil war in the 1990s, thousands of boys fought as child soldiers. Today, armies of young men with arms or legs cut off, gruesome reminders of the war, beg for the equivalent of pennies in the market.

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