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Ebola has killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa—and orphaned thousands more.

In Liberia, where an average household has three kids, this problem is particularly pronounced. According to international nonprofit Save the Children, the country has registered more than 2,000 new orphans since the epidemic began. Unable to make it to a hospital, or too afraid, parents are dying at home alongside kids who are powerless to save them. If the children survive, they are left facing communities too concerned to take them in, scared they will spread the virus.

This problem, one of many plaguing the region due to Ebola, gets exponentially worse with every new victim. Children are losing parents to Ebola at a rate equal to that at which people in that region are dying.

Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children, had just returned from a trip to Liberia when we spoke via telephone. In her 16 years at a charity dedicated solely to helping children in need, she said she’s never seen anything close to the widespread suffering Ebola is inflicting on children. “It’s unprecedented. We’ve never seen an epidemic like this.” The impact on youth, she continues, is manifesting in three ways: kids contracting the disease, being orphaned by it, or losing their already limited options for education.  

Of the more than 8,000 people infected with Ebola in West Africa, an estimated 20 percent of them are under the age of 18. Without solid health or proper nutrition, the chances of recovery in this demographic are even lower than for the epidemic at large. “Three out of four of children infected with Ebola in West Africa are dying—that’s a 75 percent mortality rate,” says Miles. “These kids are already malnourished, they’re not in the best of health. They’re just not able to survive this.”

Those that do survive, or are lucky enough to have escaped infection, meet a shadowy future. According to data from UNICEF, upwards of 3,700 children have lost one or both parents to Ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia thus far. Miles, who met with four different groups of orphans in Liberia on her visit, suspects the number is much higher. "I think there are thousands we don’t even know about," she says.

The kids Miles met had either been released from the hospital after surviving Ebola, or had made it through the 21-day incubation period. Nearly all of them were newly homeless.

The first group she encountered was three sisters, aged 18, 7, 6, and their 3-year-old brother. With a father lost to the country’s bitter civil war, the girls’ mother had been left to care for them alone. When the mother came down with Ebola in the house, their calls for ambulances were not returned until four days later. By then, she was nearly dead. After passing that evening, her body reportedly remained in the house for three days before burial teams removed it. When they did, the kids were left helpless. “They took the body away, boarded the house, and burned everything, all of their possessions,” says Miles.

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