THE BLOG
10/22/2014 06:16 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

Beyond Our Fears: Ebola's Social and Humanitarian Toll in West Africa

Ebola fear mongering is contagious. Headlines speak of Ebola cruises, Ebola as a biological weapon, and Ebola mutating into an airborne pathogen. American politicians, too, are jumping into the action. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has been accused of playing fast and loose with facts about how easily the virus spreads; Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) warned that ISIS militants could infect themselves with the virus and travel to the U.S.; and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and others have called for a ban on flights to the U.S. from Ebola-stricken countries. Yet only a handful of Ebola cases in the U.S. have been identified.

Ebola has taken a devastating toll on West Africa, especially in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. As of this month, in West Africa there have been roughly 9,000 cases and about 4,500 deaths. Ebola's immediate devastation is viscerally known to most of us as a public health crisis. But it is also a social and humanitarian crisis that has a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable, particularly women and young people.

According to UNICEF, women account for 55 to 60 percent of the deceased. The Independent estimates that women account for roughly 75 percent of overall Ebola cases. Women are on the frontlines of the crisis because they constitute a large section of the health care work force and are traditional caregivers for their families. Women are contracting the virus as they care for sick relatives without the necessary equipment and knowledge to protect themselves.

More pregnant women in the region will die without even getting Ebola. Many hospitals are closed; those that are open frequently turn people away out of fear that new patients carry the virus. Fear of contagion from health care workers is also keeping pregnant women from seeking proper medical care. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone more than 800,000 women will give birth in the next twelve months. Of these women, more than 120,000 could die of complications in pregnancy and childbirth. In addition, it is expected that 1.2 million women of childbearing age may lack access to family planning services - a fact that will undoubtedly increase the number of unexpected pregnancies in the region.

As if this grim news were not enough, Ebola has also hit young people hard.

According to UNICEF, there are currently more than 3,700 Ebola orphans, but this number could easily double. Young orphans not only lose their parents but also are shunned by their relatives out of fear of catching the disease. Frank Mulbah, a 12-year-old from Liberia, has to search for food. "A day can pass without eating anything," he says. "A few people will listen to you and give you food to eat, but the majority will chase you away."

Right now, older children are losing even more in the Ebola crisis. They are replacing their parents as primary caregivers for their siblings; in the process, they are postponing their own dreams for the future.

Even for those young people without the obligation of caring for their siblings, education is now out of the question because many schools are closed. Ebola-ravaged Liberia has no education plan for 1.4 million students. The situation is also difficult in Sierra Leone. "I should be in school now," says 13-year-old Bintu Sannoh from Sierra Leone. "I am worried because by the time schools reopen, there will be too many dropouts due to poverty and teenage pregnancy."

Although educating all children is important, educating girls is essential not only for each girl but also for her family and her community. In fact, educating girls can help break the cycle of poverty. According to UNICEF, "the return to a year of secondary education for girls correlates to a 25 percent increase in wages later in life." Furthermore, educated women are less likely to marry early and become mothers early in life. They are also less likely to die in childbirth and more likely to have healthy children.

These are the benefits of education, but right now they are lost to so many children where Ebola rages, including girls like Bintu.

As we worry about the spread of Ebola in the U.S., I hope that we are able to see the broader social crisis that such an epidemic precipitates. What do we do with this greater awareness of the toll of the epidemic?

We know that nations need to be more united and prepared in their efforts to combat epidemics like Ebola so that we can have more successes such as the recent announcement by the World Health Organization that Nigeria and Senegal were free of Ebola virus transmission. In addition, we know that we need to support the many non-profits and United Nations agencies working to combat the outbreak in West Africa.

Beyond the immediate demands, we need to understand that, even after containment of this epidemic, many affected nations in West Africa will need longer-term and sustained development strategies focused on building and strengthening public health, education and other social systems. Such policies, and the systems they create, will be essential to meeting the needs of marginalized communities and should be built from the ground up to reflect the priorities of women and children.

The next time you hear someone warn of Ebola's dangers to us, perhaps you should remind them of something else. Remind them how effectively Ebola has obliterated the lives of thousands of women and young people. It is within our power to be help the world and ourselves by preventing pandemics and being ever vigilant about the humanitarian tsunami they cause.