Angola’s deadly Marburg outbreak has left hundreds of children orphaned and traumatised after seeing dying parents rushed away or their homes destroyed in attempts to stem the spread of the deadly virus, according to the United Nations.
At least 320 children under 16 have lost one or both parents to the Ebola-like outbreak in northern Uige province, UNICEF’s deputy country representative Akhil Iyer said on Wednesday.
“There have been houses that have been burnt or destroyed, others locked up so the children have lost access to their home,” Iyer said.
“Another problem earlier on in the epidemic was the brisk removal of infected or suspected (infected) parents. This can have a devastating impact on children. It can be extremely frightening,” he added.
UNICEF is working to locate and identify affected children, and to assess their needs. The immediate concerns are nutrition, particularly among the very young, and access to healthcare, education and identity documentation, Iyer said.
“Some of those children are really in destitute and dire circumstances. We’re very concerned indeed. Children in such situations are normally at a much higher risk of exploitation and abuse,” Iyer said.
“They lost their parents very suddenly and the cause is a very strange one - Marburg is a relatively new disease and it is not well understood. It’s very sudden, it’s very unexpected and it’s absolutely devastating,” he said.
Of the 386 people known to have been infected by the Marburg virus, which is transmitted through body fluids and usually kills within days, 348 have died.
U.N. officials hope the Marburg epidemic, the world’s worst to date, will soon be stamped out.
“Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’m confident, which doesn’t mean you have to lower your guard, obviously,” said Pierre-Francois Pirlot, resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Angola.
“If you look at the curve it is obvious there is a sharp drop (in new cases) and that is a sign that things are on their way out,” he added.
Nearly half of the dead have been children, and many of the adults who died left behind families to fend for themselves in a country struggling to recover from the devastating effects of nearly three decades of civil war that ended in 2002.
The plight of Marburg orphans mirrors that of millions of children across southern Africa who have lost one or both parents to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
“There are some similarities between children orphaned by HIV/AIDS and children orphaned by Marburg, but what is perhaps different is the speed and the suddenness. Marburg kills very quickly, and HIV/AIDS tends to be a slower death,” Iyer said.
“There is a degree of trauma. It varies from case to case, from child to child, but some children are very traumatised and need psychosocial support and counselling. Others in a much more supportive family environment, perhaps in the family of relatives, are coming to grips with it better,” he said.
Revision date: June 14, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.