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Monsters in suits: Ebola's traumatic effect on children

28 October 2014, 06:57

Gueckedou - At least 5 000 children in Guinea have been directly affected by Ebola, which as orphaned about 1 000 of them. The deadly virus that prohibits human touch has traumatised them on a psycho-social as well as medical level.

A baby's anxious wail echoes from a treatment centre in the eastern town of Gueckedou, the heart of Guinea's Ebola outbreak. A doctor covered from head to toe in protective gear emerges seconds later, holding a tiny infant in his arms.

Rocking and patting the 2-week-old, the physician tries to soothe the newborn despite the impersonal "space suit" he is wearing to protect himself from the deadly virus that has killed almost 4 900 people across West Africa.

The baby's mother and father are both infected with Ebola. The infant is symptomatic but its test results are yet to be confirmed. Isolated from his parents, he has to struggle for survival all by himself.

Also Read: New Jersey discharges nurse quarantined for Ebola

Many Guineans call Ebola the "evil disease," not only because the virus has a death rate of up to 70%, but because it destroys inter-personal relationships as it can be transmitted by touch.

For a child, any hospital stay is a frightening experience. Being admitted to an Ebola treatment centre, where the only contact to the outside world is through doctors in protective suits, is downright traumatising.

There is no skin contact. Faces are concealed behind thick pairs of goggles, while a double layer of masks makes communication difficult.

"The children cry a lot. It's scary for them to see people come towards them in astronaut suits. They don't understand," says Ibrahim Bah, an infectious diseases specialist at Donka Hospital in the capital, Conakry.

"We play with them and try to make them laugh so they understand we aren't monsters," he adds.

Guinea's Ebola treatment centres are housed in provisional tents, without air conditioning. Due to the country's heat and humidity - Conakry has a year-round average temperature of 29 degrees - doctors can only stay up to 90 minutes in full protective gear.

That means staff rotation is high, which makes building relationships with children even more difficult.

"We constantly try to brainstorm creative ways to overcome this," says Julia Garcia, a doctor with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in Gueckedou, a remote town near the border with Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Each time before her shift starts, Garcia makes face-to-face contact with children who are able to walk in the treatment centre's visitor zone. She agrees with them on a hand signal so that they recognise her despite the suit.

"I sometimes sing them songs, but it's complicated because it's hard to breathe under the masks," Garcia says.

The World Health Organisation recorded 1 540 Ebola cases in Guinea by October 22, off which 904 people have died. It is unclear how many of them are children.

One thing, however, is certain: Children, and particularly babies, have little chance of surviving Ebola because their immune systems are much more fragile than those of adults.

Twelve-year-old Rosaline Koundiano from Gueckedou is one of the exceptions. She was one of the first children to survive Ebola in this outbreak.

Rosaline became infected when she helped care for her grandmother in February. For days, she cleaned up the old women's vomit, blood and soiled bed sheets.

Shortly after her grandmother's funeral, Rosaline and her mother fell ill, too. In the treatment centre, the girl turned out to be the stronger one of the two.

Also Read: Blackmailers threaten Czechs with Ebola outbreak

"I brought my mother water to wash. I made sure she ate. I took her by the hand to go for a little walk so she could see the sky," the thin, soft-spoken girl recalls.

A month later, both of them were healed. But in the meantime, ten members of their family had died of Ebola. When Rosaline returned home, she was heartbroken - and rejected by friends and neighbours.

A certificate that proves she is free of the virus helped little. It took many weeks of being visibly healthy until her friends were allowed to play with her again.

At least 5 000 children are directly affected by Ebola in Guinea, on a medical as well as psycho-social level, according to United Nations children's fund Unicef.

"Ebola has worsened the already extremely difficult situation in which Guinea's children live. It's very hard to watch," says Unicef child protection officer Fassou Isidore Lama.

An estimated 1 000 Guinean children have lost one or both parents to Ebola, according to Lama. Fear of contagion means many of them, even those who test negative, are being abandoned.

One of them is 18-month-old Yawa, a cute little girl with big round eyes and pudgy cheeks. About two months ago, she arrived with her mother at the treatment unit in Gueckedou. Because the mother was symptomatic and Yawa healthy, they were separated.

The toddler was housed in a tent next to the hospital - an interim creche where now immune Ebola survivors care for her. When her mother died, Yawa's father rejected the girl out of fear she might carry the virus.

A team of psychologists has been in contact with the family for weeks to convince them to take back the child. But progress has been painfully slow.

"It's a humanitarian catastrophe," says Lama.



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