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Mariatu's Smile Tells Us That the Ebola Epidemic Is Over, But Her Eyes Reveal That the Crisis Isn't

07/11/2015 09:47 GMT | Updated 06/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Twelve year-old Mariatu has a beautiful smile. But she doesn't smile often. Her 15 year-old brother Mohammed doesn't smile at all. They are kind and polite as they talk to me before heading to their school which has now reopened; but they carry sadness in their eyes.

In the last few months they have lost their mother, father and two of their siblings to Ebola.

Now they live with their 21 year-old brother - the only other surviving member of the family. At 21 he is the new head of the household, and he is responsible for earning enough to make sure Mariatu and Mohammed have enough to eat and can continue to go to school. There is no social security system to help them, so they must fend for themselves.

Today's announcement that Sierra Leone is Ebola free is a cause for celebration for the nation. There will be a palpable, if cautious, sense of relief after months of tension and fear. But the story doesn't end here.

'Everyone knows someone who's been affected by Ebola' says social worker Justin. This is the end of the epidemic, but it's not the end of the crisis.

Walking through the small town of Magburaka on market day proves that this is all too true: many of those running stalls selling everything from coloured cloth to dried fish are trying to earn more than they did before so that they can care for additional orphaned children alongside their own, or make up for the loss of their spouse's earnings. Samuel, 35, is selling jeans, he lost his wife to Ebola. He says a business grant from the charity Street Child has helped him to keep his children in school since they lost their mum, but finances are very tight and it's tough running the business and caring for four young children on his own.

Justin tells me that the biggest legacy of Ebola is the shock and grief carried by so many families, and the impact on orphaned children whose futures are so fragile.

Street Child CEO Tom Dannatt says that these children are in danger of becoming a 'lost generation' unless someone steps in to help them.

For charities like Street Child, who work with vulnerable children in Sierra Leone, there is so much work to be done. In Magburaka alone, the charity has identified 442 Ebola orphans, 76 percent of whom have lost both parents. They've employed several new social workers to help make sure that these children are connected to care givers like aunts and uncles and are not on the streets. They're also giving business grants and advice on saving to help care givers to provide food and education to the children they're looking after.

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This support has been a lifeline for many families like Ejatu's. She already has children of her own and so she's grateful for the support that helps make it possible for her to care for her seven-year-old niece and thirteen-year-old nephew who lost both parents to Ebola.

Sadly, for some families, support came too late, and children have died of malnutrition. It's stark. Most of the children orphaned by Ebola are from desperately poor backgrounds; the death of the wage earning parent often means that the young lives left behind lie in the balance.

The impact on girls has been disproportionately high: the closure of schools during the epidemic saw many enter into early marriage or become teenage mothers, forcing them to drop out of school. Social worker Justin is particularly distressed by this, saying that these teenage pregnancies mean that the cycle of poverty, which was beginning to be broken, will now continue for these young women.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is that some of the poorest orphaned girls are now being forced to sell their bodies to be able to eat.

The road to recovery is going to be a long one, but there is hope. Justin says: 'The future is bright despite Ebola, because there is a willingness to forge ahead; we have confidence to believe we can do it. We experienced war and a lot of developments came out of that; now we've experienced Ebola and we think we can do more to help the country grow. Other countries are now promising to help us. We need to rebuild hospitals, help train medical professionals and develop our agriculture. If this happens, our hope is that this disaster could lead to an improvement in our healthcare system.'

For Mariatu and Mohammed, and the thousands of children orphaned by Ebola, rebuilding the country will help give them a better future; but what they need right now is immediate support.

There's an uncomfortable inevitability that the end of the Ebola epidemic will see the world's media turn its eyes elsewhere, and these children's lives will be forgotten.

Whether we choose to do the same is up to us.

Molly Hodson recently visited Sierra Leone with the charity Street Child. To support their work with Ebola orphans visit: www.street-child.co.uk