01/01/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/02/2015 05:59 EST

Ebola outbreak: children at heart of humanitarian challenge

Children left orphaned by Ebola are an enduring humanitarian legacy of the outbreak, relief agency officials say.

About one fifth of the people affected by Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are children, according to UNICEF, the lead international organization helping children in the outbreak.

Ebola is a medical disaster coupled with the fear of a civil war, said David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada.  

"The psychological impact on children, it’s horrific," Morley said.

UNICEF estimates that up to 10,000 children have already lost one or both parents or caregivers due to Ebola.

Children want to be hugged but people in communities fighting the outbreak are afraid to touch them and dressing in a Hazmat suit is too scary to girls and boys. That’s why UNICEF looks for Ebola survivors who are considered immune to the virus to provide psychological support.

Sarah Crowe, UNICEF crisis communications chief, said survivors who provide love, care and attention to young children are a "powerful resource."

Street Child is a UK charity focused on providing educational opportunities to children in West Africa, where the definition of an orphan is a child who has lost their primary caregiver.

"This is definitely the saddest situation I’ve ever witnessed firsthand," said Chloe Brett, a program director for Street Child in Liberia. Brett has visited the continent regularly for five years.

Normally in West Africa, orphans would be greeted with open arms by neighbours and community members who provide support. But it’s the opposite with Ebola.

"They’re slamming their doors, they’re shunning the children," Brett said.

In November, the leaders of the Economic Community of West African States or ECOSWAS put the Ebola crisis high on their agenda during a meeting in Accra, Ghana.

"The fear and stigma of Ebola has made these new orphans, these new children of disease, unwanted in the homes of their extended relatives and unwanted in the existing orphanages," said John Dramani Mahama, the group's chair.

Education is key to make it clear children and adults aren’t infectious until they show symptoms, Brett said. Children highly at risk of infection can be placed in "interim care centres" for 21 days until they’re either cleared or set for treatment.

Canadians may want to reach out and help children directly through international adoption. It can be an option but not until those on the ground confirm no biological family member or anyone else in the community wants to care for a child, Morley said.

"Hopefully, the statistics are right and the infection rate’s coming down and stabilizing and eventually it going to deplete. But it’s leaving a huge humanitarian problem in its wake and the children are very much at the heart of it," Brett said.