Thousands of children who have lost parents to the west African Ebola epidemic risk are being shunned by frightened and suspicious relatives, reveal the UN children's fund.
The outbreak has claimed more than 3,000 lives this year in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and UNICEF estimates around 3,700 children have lost at least one parent -- with the number expected to double by mid-October.
"Ebola is turning a basic human reaction like comforting a sick child into a potential death sentence," Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's regional director for west and central Africa, said in a statement.
In west African society, bereaved children are usually taken in by a member of the extended family.
But UNICEF says relatives in some communities are rejecting the offspring of victims of Ebola -- which spreads through contact with infected body fluids -- because "the fear surrounding Ebola is becoming stronger than family ties".
Fontaine said thousands of children mourning dead parents and in urgent need of support felt "unwanted and even abandoned".
Sarah Crowe, head of UNICEF's crisis communication in Liberia, told a recent news conference the treatment of the children of Ebola victims was "really quite heartbreaking".
"Children are seeing their family members and relatives taken away by people in effectively astronaut suits... and the effect is deeply distressing," she told a news conference in Geneva.
Many children who have lost family members to Ebola face "deep stigma", Crowe said, meaning they are often forced to roam the streets.
UNICEF announced that more than 2,500 Ebola survivors who are thought to have some immunity to the virus will be trained in Sierra Leone to provide care and support to quarantined children in treatment centres.
In Guinea, the agency and its partners plan to provide about 60,000 vulnerable children and families in Ebola-affected communities with psychological support, it said.
UNICEF has appealed for $200 million (252 million euros) to provide emergency care to children affected by Ebola and their families, but says it has so far received only a quarter of its target amount.