Caring for children orphaned by Ebola in Sierra Leone

I recently saw a grandfather, not old enough to be called elderly, break down and cry. I was accompanying Yusuf Koroma, a social worker attached to the Observation Interim Care Center (OICC) in Portee, a neighborhood in eastern Freetown. The OICC is where children who may have been exposed to Ebola are brought for observation.

Following up on children who have gone through the OICC and returned to their homes is a routine part of Yusuf’s duties. I was joining him for the day as he went out to deliver BP-100 (high energy therapeutic food) to children who have been discharged. Child malnutrition rates in Sierra Leone are among the highest in the world. Malnutrition compromises children’s immunity to infectious diseases, hence the importance of providing therapeutic foods.

Our first stop was at the home of four-year-old Musu Conteh*, who lost both her parents to Ebola.

At the house Yusuf was met by a chorus of greetings from various members of Musu’s extended family. He and Musu’s grandfather greeted warmly, but there were no handshakes. Yusuf introduced me – I nodded and clasped my hands in greeting. I had not touched anyone since arriving in Freetown two weeks earlier. As long as Ebola is present in the country, the office maintains a ‘no touch’ policy. No handshakes or other forms of bodily contact are allowed. Despite sharp reductions in Ebola rates since last year, the deadly virus is still present in Sierra Leone, and as the spikes in new Ebola cases in June confirm, maintaining all safety precautions remains imperative.

Yusuf is an Ebola survivor, and as such doesn’t fear contracting the virus again or transmitting it on through casual contact, as it has been more than three months since he recovered.

While Yusuf and Mr. Conteh* were talking, catching up on news since the last visit, Musu ran up to Yusuf and gave him a big hug. She was happy to see him although she was shy in front of me. I asked her permission to take her picture, and after looking around at her grandfather and aunt, she turned back, smiled and while nodding said, “OK, you can snap me.”

Musu soon forgot about the strange man with a camera as Yusuf went back to the car to get her supply of BP-100 high energy biscuits. He helped her to open one of the packs and she immediately started munching on the nutritious treat.

Yusuf Koroma carrying 4-year-old Musu Conteh.
Yusuf Koroma carrying 4-year-old Musu Conteh. ©UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Kassaye

Then, the mood on the Conteh front porch changed. Musu’s grandfather, who had been watching the whole scene from the recesses of the front porch, got up suddenly, his chest heaving, and rushed inside the dark interior of his home. The sound of his weeping was contagious, and soon Musu’s aunt and older cousins were all wiping their tears, sharing his grief for their lost family members.

“Musu was the first child to be brought to our OICC,” Yusuf told me. “We received a call from the District Ebola Command Center and we went for her and brought her to the OICC where we conducted several tests because she was having some fever. We first sent her to a holding center and then she came back to us and passed through the 21 days observation safely. Her mother, father and brother, however, died of Ebola. She was then discharged from our center and sent to the Interim Care Center, until her grandfather was ready to take her in, and then she moved in with him.”

We waited for Musu’s grandfather to collect himself, and expressed our condolences to the whole family. An emotional exchange in Krio with Yusuf followed, after which we bade them all farewell, Yusuf promising to return in the near future to check up on them.

“I feel good doing this work because I am also a survivor. You can see how happy they are to see me. I feel good working for survivors.”

UNICEF supports the operational costs and provides supplies for OICCs throughout Sierra Leone. BP-100 and other nutrition supplies are provided to Ebola related facilities in all affected areas of Sierra Leone. Close to 4000 cases that have gone through Ebola centers have been provided with nutrition supplies so far.

As of 27 June 2015, there have been 8664 confirmed cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, of which 1,459 were children. The number of confirmed deaths from Ebola stands at 3,566.

UNICEF’s USD 178 million appeal to respond to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, remains under-funded, with 120.5 million received to date, leaving a funding gap of USD 57.3 million.

Indrias G. Kassaye is a Communication Specialist working for UNICEF.

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

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