Sierra Leone: Caring for Ebola’s youngest victims

Published: 18 March 2015 12:30 CET

By Lisa Pattison, IFRC

Tied to a fence, a riot of blue, pink, green and purple balloons bobs gently in the breeze while five young children explode into an enthusiastic rendition of heads, shoulders, knees and toes, in Norwegian.  Contrary to initial impressions, this is not a children’s party, but celebrations for the discharge of five young suspected Ebola patients from the Red Cross treatment centre (ETC) in Kenema, Sierra Leone.

Singing songs with the centre’s staff is just one of the ways the children have been entertained over the past 21 days, the obligatory quarantine period for individuals who have come into contact with a confirmed Ebola patient. “Contact can’t be heavier between a loving mother and her child, which means the level of risk of contamination is enormous,” explains Anders Håkanson from the Swedish Red Cross while working at the ETC. On admittance, all the mothers of these children tested positive for Ebola but the children were yet to demonstrate its symptoms.

To give the children the best chance of survival, each child was separated from its mother and was cared for in a new facility in the ETC known as the ‘kindergarten’. The facility opened in November and serves as an isolation zone where children under the age of seven are observed for any signs of Ebola. As soon as there is an indication of fever or other symptoms, the child is then returned to its mother in order to not contaminate the other children.

The children are looked after by a number of nurses who have themselves survived Ebola. Although the children do not demonstrate signs of Ebola and the nurses have a degree of immunity, their carers still wear a light protective suit complete with gown, mask and gloves. Far from the normal silence that envelops hospitals, the kindergarten bustles with activity and movement. “We sing, dance, tell stories and play,” says Doris Lansana, one of the survivor nurses caring for the children.

“We feed them, clean them and take their temperature two times a day looking for any signs of Ebola. The children are happy here. Today is a happy and sad day for us. On one hand we feel we have achieved something, the children can go home. On the other hand, we’ll miss them a lot because we have been with them all the time.” Another nurse Fatima K. Kamara explains that her five year old son, Mohamed, has spoken to the children over the phone. “He told them once they are out he wanted to be friends with them,” she says proudly.

The sad reality of Ebola’s orphans

Beyond the playful mood of the children is the sad reality that all of their mothers have succumbed to the disease. In seven year old Fatmata’s case, she has been orphaned. As Ebola tightens its grip on communities, a growing number of children without parents are being left behind. It is often a challenge finding the next of kin, or ensuring the child is not subjected to stigmatization and rejected by their community.

This day, however, has a happy ending. The ETC staff have managed to trace and contact a family member for each child, who were more often than not, thought to have died alongside their mothers. In accordance with Fatmata’s mother’s dying wish, Fatmata will go to live with her elder sister and an uncle. When Fatmata sees her sister arrive, a shy but brilliant smile creeps across her face as she waves in greeting. Alongside her is Fatmata’s uncle Fodey, who “thanks god she is still alive and not lost to them.”

The children will certainly be missed in the ETC. The nurses tell of how Fatmata, being the oldest, has looked after the younger children, and how two year old Lahai is a handful. “That boy is a troublesome, mischievous boy,” nurse Doris says shaking her head, rolling her eyes and laughing. It seems Lahai has made an impression with the ETC staff as they all shake their head in amusement when thinking about the energetic toddler.

To support their families, the children receive a discharge package containing hygiene supplies, clothes, and food. Follow-up visits are coordinated between the Ministry of Social Welfare, Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations (NGO) to ensure the children are readapting well. If a next of kin has not been found, ETC staff liaise with a local NGO to ensure the child has interim care.

As the children exit the kindergarten and clutch their discharge certificates, they behave like normal children, fighting over who gets the football, and who gets the purple dinosaur toy. At the prospect of going home, they enthusiastically join an Australian and a British nurse in a final rendition of the birdie song.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched a revised emergency appeal of 41 million Swiss francs to reach more than 11 million people who could be affected by the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. In total, IFRC has launched 16 Ebola operations in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, targeting 39 million people. For more details on the Red Cross regional Ebola response, visit