Children in particular are vulnerable during infectious disease outbreaks for a variety of reasons. Beyond the immediate impacts on their health and that of their caregivers, the social and economic disruptions caused by outbreaks also present risks to children’s well-being and protection.
Why are children particularly vulnerable during infectious disease outbreaks?
Children’s susceptibility to infection during infectious disease outbreaks is influenced by a number of factors related to their developmental stage, their evolving capacities and their dependence on caregivers.
For example, children are less likely to adhere to some behavioural and hygienic practices such as routine hand washing that prevent, or reduce the risk of, infection depending on their age, maturity and evolving capacities. Messages about health promoting behaviours are also most often targeted at adults.
Infectious disease outbreaks can also disrupt the environments in which children grow and develop. The disruptions can be caused directly by individual infectious diseases and by measures taken to prevent and control the infectious disease outbreak.
For example, community level quarantine can be a cause of prolonged family separation when caregivers and children find themselves in different locations at the time that village and/or district level quarantine measures are imposed, and are unable to reunite until the quarantine measures are lifted.
What actions should complement the existing actions in the Minimum Standards for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action to protect children during infectious disease outbreaks?
Humanitarian responses to infectious disease outbreaks necessarily need to first and foremost focus on preventing and controlling disease transmission. In doing so, responses should take into consideration the consequences of outbreaks on children, their families and communities. There is a need, in particular, to consider the unique ways in which outbreaks, and ensuing measures to prevent and control the spread of disease, pose threats to children’s well-being and protection.
Sample Recommendations and Examples
Expand current child protection in emergencies trainings for standby roster members and child protection specialists to include information on the unique child protection needs and priority actions in infectious disease outbreaks, and ensure that eligible participants are added to the global inter-agency database and/or standby pool.
Staffing humanitarian responses to infectious disease outbreaks can be a challenge as often under resourced and weak health systems contributed to the rise of the epidemic in the first place. Surge deployments were used to address some of the challenges with international recruitment. UNICEF, for example, deployed a total of 714 people to the EVD emergency. UNICEF Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea requested 67 Child Protection Specialists, and 56 were deployed.
Communication, Advocacy and Media
Recognise that messages aimed at adults will be seen and heard by children, who may not be developmentally or emotionally ready to understand their content. Work with other sectors to ensure that lifesaving messages – even those that are aimed only at adults – are phrased in a manner that avoids causing undue distress to children or their caregivers.
Messages disseminated during the EVD outbreak stating, “Ebola Kills” induced panic in adults and children alike. People felt hopeless, afraid, and powerless to avoid the disease. The perception that death was inevitable and imminent discouraged compliance with safe practices, led to heightened feelings of fear among children.
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About the Guidance Note
The Guidance Note aims to provide humanitarian child protection practitioners, particularly child protection advisors and program managers, with guidance on how to engage in responses to infectious disease outbreaks to ensure children’s protection needs are taken into account in preparedness for, and during responses to, the outbreaks. The Guidance Note draws upon lessons learned during infectious disease outbreaks globally in a variety of contexts.
The Global Child Protection Minimum Standards Working Group of the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action commissioned Proteknon via Plan International Germany to develop this guidance note for future child protection preparedness and response actions in infectious disease outbreaks. The development of this guidance note is funded through support from the Office for US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) of the United States Agency for International Development.