CDC: 1.5 MILLION CHILDREN ORPHANED BY COVID-19

BY GINA CILIBERTO

According to a new report, 1.5 million children lost at least one primary caregiver to COVID-19 by the end of April 2021.

Children: The Hidden Pandemic 2021 — a joint report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States Agency for International Development, and World Without Orphans, in conjunction with other global child welfare experts — stated that, without immediate action, “the COVID-19 pandemic is destined to leave millions more children orphaned.”

In response to the findings, the Faith to Action Initiative, a child welfare nonprofit that provides resources to Christian churches and faith-based organizations, along with several of its coalition members, encouraged a shift away from orphanages and toward family-based care.

Now is the time to ​“prevent the COVID-19-associated death of caregivers by accelerating equitable access to vaccines,” the statement reads. In cases where a caregiver has died of COVID-19, the statement emphasized that children should not be consigned to orphanages or children’s homes but rather continue to live within family units. It also noted that extended families and faith communities have an opportunity to care for children who have lost a caregiver to the virus but will need additional resources to do so.

“Now is the time to invest in strengthening families and developing family care, not orphanages,” Karmen Friesen, principal coordinator for World Without Orphans, said in the statement. “And around the world, it is churches that are ideally placed to provide the wrap-around support that families in crisis urgently need.”

According to a 2017 estimate from UNICEF, there are at least 2.7 million children in orphanages and institutionalized care around the world. The actual number is likely far higher, UNICEF says, because many countries don’t include children living in privately run facilities in their tallies.

Child rights experts say that most children in orphanages aren’t actually parent-less: At least four out of five children in institutional care have one or both parents alive. Elli Oswald, executive director of Faith to Action Initiative, said that it’s “important to recognize that the term ‘orphan’ doesn’t mean what we think it means.” UNICEF defines an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents.

“These aren’t children who are wandering the streets all alone with flies on their eyes,” Oswald said. “These are children who are in families and in communities. They’re still extremely vulnerable, and their families need support. But if we don’t understand who these children are, it can mislead us and lead us to wrong solutions.”

Children are often placed in orphanages not because they’re orphans but because they’re disabled or ill, female, or even because poor parents were offered money to give up their children — a form of child trafficking.

Once they’re put in orphanages, children are susceptible to illness, abuse, and developmental delays. Studies show that orphanage placement increases the risk of serious infectious illness, as well as significant developmental delays that can affect cognitive, language, gross and fine motor, personal and social skills in young children.

The Faith to Action Initiative suggests that the best way to care for children who have lost a caregiver is not to send them to an orphanage, but instead to combine equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and income-strengthening, parenting support programs. Also known as cash and care programs, these services provide material and psychosocial support so that extended family, friends, church communities, or adoptive or foster homes can care for children.

This approach, which allows children to remain within a family structure and still access education and healthcare, has been shown to improve children’s health, nutrition, cognitive development, and in reducing risks of violence.

Oswald said that Christian churches and communities are “best placed” to provide this kind of life-changing care.

“The opposite of an orphan is a family, and the solution to orphaned children is family. My hope is to see Christians leading this effort in seeing children cared for in safe and loving families,” Oswald told Sojourners.

Jedd Medefind, president of Christian Alliance for Orphans, said that while COVID-19 has harmed families worldwide, it also “brings an immense challenge and an immense opportunity.”

“Scripture and social science consistently affirm that the very best place for a child to thrive is a safe, permanent, nurturing family,” Medefind said in the news release. “The local church in every nation has both the calling and the community capable of making a world of difference — restoring broken families, strengthening struggling families, and welcoming children into new families whenever needed.”

Gina Ciliberto

Gina Ciliberto is a writer who lives in Minneapolis, Minn. Follow her on Twitter @ginaciliberto.

DELIVERING ON THE PROMISE OF A POLIO-FREE WORLD — FOR GOOD

BY RACHEL BRIDGES 

Within five years the world has the chance to make polio a thing of the past, only the second disease in human history to be eradicated. The partnership tasked with finishing the job, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has a new, innovative strategy that builds on community-centred approaches, integrated services, and new technology to not only achieve the milestone of a polio-free world but also help build strong resilient health systems.

Walking through twisting and turning pathways, I follow a team of three community health workers through a neighbourhood in Kano, Nigeria. It’s sticky and hot as the afternoon sun beats down, dust clouds the air, and the sounds of goats and motor scooters fill the surroundings. There are no street signs to guide us — only knowledgeable and trusted women from this community who know the way.

We turn a corner and come to a cement facade with a piece of fabric in the doorway. The team lead calls through the curtain and asks if we can come in. A woman sits on the floor just past the entry with a 5-month-old baby while her other children run around the courtyard. The team pulls out the health checkup card for the mother and baby and gets to work.

Kano, Nigeria
Children under five are the most vulnerable to polio. Once infected, there is no cure. Photo: Andrew Esiebo/UN Foundation

These community health workers are responsible for going house to house to check on families, looking for signs of fever or acute paralysis, an indication that a child may have poliovirus. They also are critical messengers of health, ensuring that families are up to date on their routine immunizations, providing breastfeeding or other nutritional support, and also monitoring for any emerging illnesses that need to be tracked.

A NEW STRATEGY TO ERADICATE POLIO

It may seem small scale, but these community health workers that I met on a pre-pandemic trip in 2019 are a vital part of achieving the goal of eradicating polio around the world, and they are central to the new strategy of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). They have made the difference in countries where wiping out polio was once thought impossible — places like Nigeria, which was just certified wild polio-free in August 2020.

Now, wild polio remains in just two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s been hard to make progress in the last two polio-endemic countries, while also maintaining polio-free status in countries that are at high risk for outbreaks. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more difficult to reach eradication goals and sustain progress as health systems have been increasingly strained. In fact, 90% of countries say their essential health systems have been disrupted because of the pandemic. That means that millions of children have missed out on polio immunizations, and other essential health services since the pandemic began.

During the recent World Health Assembly, Member States acknowledged disruptions to polio operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic and expressed growing enthusiasm for redoubling efforts and recalibrating the global strategy to fight polio.

Building on this momentum and commitment to achieve global eradication, GPEI just launched a new strategy to circumvent obstacles related to COVID-19 and to overcome previous challenges that have made eradicating polio challenging to date.https://www.youtube.com/embed/j7vxKdy7NDs?feature=oembed

“The world has come so far in the fight to end polio, and we cannot afford to lose momentum now,” Mike McGovern, Chair of Rotary International’s PolioPlus Program, said during the strategy launch event on June 10.

The new strategy outlines what it will take to get us across the finish line to deliver on the promise of a polio-free world by 2026. It reinforces successful models like the use of trusted community health workers and social mobilizers, while also taking an innovative approach to employing new technology in immunization and more integrated and inclusive health services.

GPEI recently developed a next-generation version of the existing oral polio vaccine, known as nOPV2, which has been found to be safe, effective, and more genetically stable. This new technology is expected to play a vital role in stopping wild polio infections from happening while also reducing the cases of what’s known as circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus, cases of polio that are picked up from waste in the environment in communities where the rate of immunizations is lower than it should be. The nOPV2 vaccine has already received Emergency Use Listing from the World Health Organization — preliminary authorization to deploy a novel test, treatment, or vaccine in cases of urgent public health emergencies — and is being used in a few countries with promising results so far. This new tool will be groundbreaking in the campaign to end polio.

INTEGRATING POLIO AND OTHER HEALTH SERVICES

It’s clear that doing business as usual won’t get the job done. That’s why GPEI has focused on enhanced integration of polio and other health services as a foundation of the new strategy. This includes integration of monitoring and surveillance with other health programs and partners like Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, integrating ownership of health services and vaccine delivery into local communities. The programs also incorporate nutrition, education, hygiene, water, sanitation, and other critical services to more holistically address the basic needs of many populations in Afghanistan and Pakistan where possible.

For example, in high-risk districts of Pakistan, a new initiative to integrate additional services into polio vaccination campaigns helped reduce missed children and increased polio vaccine uptake. In one area of Quetta, a city in western Pakistan, vaccine refusals declined from over 700 families to just 19.

The strategy also includes ways to support countries in addressing gender-related barriers to polio vaccination and ensures that women are represented at all levels of operational and strategic decision-making. Taking a gender-responsive approach will help ensure that more communities will be reached and more children will receive vital immunizations.

Reducing the number of zero-dose children will be imperative if we want to see an end to polio once and for all. GPEI’s new road map offers a clear view of the path forward, keeping communities’ needs at their centre. With this strategy, and concerted financing to achieve it, we have the ability to eradicate only the second disease in human history behind smallpox. What’s more, this new integrated approach will help create strong, resilient, and sustainable health systems that will be imperative to not only achieve and sustain a polio-free world but also to prevent future health emergencies and deliver on the promise of health for all.

UN Foundation Global Health Fellow Logan Nesson contributed to this post.

Feature photo: Christine McNab/UN Foundation