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Ebola update: Q&A with Billy Abimbilla

ChildFund is continuing to respond to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, supporting children and families affected by the disease. Billy Abimbilla, national director for ChildFund Liberia and ChildFund Sierra Leone, has been leading the response in both countries. We spoke to Billy this week to get the latest update.

You`ve been dealing with the Ebola crisis for more than six months €“ how would you describe the situation now?

The situation is getting better in Liberia because the infection rates are declining. Fewer people are getting infected, unlike before when the ambulance sirens were sounding across many roads, especially in [the capital] Monrovia. There are fewer sirens being heard now and the statistics show that people have adhered to the infection and prevention control measures, so not as many people are getting infected.

But the situation is the opposite in Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone the infection rates are still high. We are yet to know exactly what the reasons are, but some of the reasons being advanced are that people are still not adhering to the dos and don`ts about Ebola and are still practising certain traditional practices that promote increased infection.

Are ChildFund`s programs still on hold in Liberia and Sierra Leone, or have you been able to resume some regular work?

We are doing both. We have restarted normal program work in Liberia, so projects that were suspended at the peak of the emergency have now been restarted. At the same time, we are responding to the emergency, especially the practical needs of children.

In Sierra Leone, some parts of the country have been declared quarantine areas €“ that means no people from those areas can leave and no one can enter into those areas. Some of those areas fall within our program areas so program implementation is still suspended in those areas. However, some other districts have very few cases of Ebola and infection rates are declining, so for those areas the government has said we can resume normal activities.

What`s your priority and focus right now?

Right now our priority still remains the children who have been affected by the Ebola virus disease. In Liberia, we are still implementing our Interim Care Centre (ICC*) model and taking in children who have come into contact with infected people. Two centres are running now and another three are planned.

In Sierra Leone, we have established four Observation Interim Care Centres (OICC*), which started in mid-November. So far over 200 children have passed through these centres. Because of the high infection rates, there is a continuing need for the support of these children. So we foresee a need of these OICCs for some time to come.

We are also providing community support, in terms of psychosocial services for children who have gone back into their communities and support for families who have taken in children other than their own children. We must ensure there is no complacency in families regarding infection with Ebola. So we are still keeping the momentum in terms of letting families know that Ebola is not completely eradicated and they still need to be careful.

How easy has it been to reunite children with relatives or adoptive families?

Fortunately it has been quite easy. As soon as children are brought to the centre, we start making contact with the family, either the extended family or foster care. We start the education by letting them know that after the 21-day quarantine period, these children are no longer infectious. They can come into the family setting and be like any other child who has not contracted Ebola.

When a child is going to join a family, we also provide a reunification package to support the child as well as the family, and then we will continue monitoring them for up to two years to ensure the child is progressing well in that family. So the reason why we are able to get all of the children into families is because we do a lot of education and we give a lot of assurances that these children are no danger to any other person.

President Ernest Bai Koroma recently commended ChildFund Sierra Leone for your outstanding work in reuniting Ebola child survivors with their families and communities. What can you tell us about that?

This was in one location called Bo, a city in the southern province. The president chose to go there because he had heard a lot of good things about how ChildFund was supporting children affected by the Ebola virus disease. So he stopped over to see and understand what is going on in those centres.

He actually assisted us very much in stressing to extended family members to take back these children after the 21 days, that it is important these children get back into family care. And he praised us for continuing to do good work in the country. So it was quite inspiring for us.

Is there still an urgent need for more funds?

Yes, there will be an urgent need for more funds for some time to come. Besides supporting children at the ICCs in Liberia and the OICCs in Sierra Leone, life has become quite difficult for many families because they haven`t been able to farm, those who are in trade have had to stop because of travel restrictions, and the increase in the price of basic household supplies is also affecting children and their families. We will need extra support to help families overcome this situation €“ things like providing equipment and replenishing livestock, such as goats and poultry, to help restore their incomes.

What are your biggest concerns for children right now?

Our biggest concern is that the Ebola virus disease has come to affect a lot of families, either you`ve lost a loved one or your livelihood has been eroded, many children have had to stop schooling because all schools have been closed down. Even though they are reopening in Liberia, we don`t know when they will reopen in Sierra Leone.

Many children are experiencing such a traumatic situation for the first time. It`s going to affect them adversely for some time to come. So ChildFund, together with other actors and the government in Sierra Leone and Liberia, is working to reduce the trauma and stigmatisation of children. We must help them get back into normalcy, into normal development, so we can restore hope and dignity for these children and they can continue to enjoy their basic rights.

ChildFund understands that sponsors will be very worried about their sponsored children in affected countries. ChildFund staff and local partners continue to monitor and support sponsored children and their families. All sponsors of children who have contracted Ebola have been notified. If we receive information about your sponsored child, a member of our Supporter Relations team will be in touch.

*ICC and OICC refer to the same kind of centre different terminology is used in each country

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