Despite being discovered in 1976, the Ebola virus still has an average fatality rate of 50% and no proven treatment or vaccine (see our recent article on new clinical vaccine trials). Since March, over 5,000 cases of the virus have been detected and of those, over 2,600 have died. The U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC) projects that, without adequate intervention, there could be as many as 250,000 Ebola cases by Christmas and 500,000 by the end of January.
Given these alarming statistics, innovation is more important than ever. In the countries hardest hit by the virus to date – Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – innovative community-level interventions are needed to educate the public on how the virus is transmitted and what to do if symptoms surface. Here we’ll look at two unconventional but effective means to get these messages heard – music and motorbike drivers.
‘Ebola is Real’
In Liberia, hit hip hop song ‘Ebola is Real’ has become one of the most played tracks country-wide. In addition to being incredibly catchy, it also contains important messages on how to protect against and prevent the spread of the virus. The song’s lyrics explain modes of transmission, when to report possible cases and how to safely dispose of deceased persons (listen to the track below).
‘Ebola is Real’ is the end product of a strategic collaboration between the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Liberia’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, local radio station Hott FM and Liberian artists F.A., Soul Fresh and DenG. The song has been specifically designed to reach young Liberians under 18 who make up roughly half of the country’s population. It does so through the use of Hip Co, a local hip-hop-esque style of music that draws on colloquial language, and is often socially and politically charged. Since being released, the song has already been featured daily on television shows and over 20 radio stations across the country.
In Sierra Leone, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has turned to motorbike riders to raise awareness on the Ebola virus. In early September, 25 motorbike riders took part in the first of many UNDP training sessions designed to sensitize drivers on how to effectively protect themselves and their passengers. The program is expected to reach up to 200,000 Freetown residents over a two month period and is in the process of being scaled up nation-wide.
In Freetown, there are between 50,000 and 80,000 commercial motorbike riders who provide taxi services for the city’s population. These individuals, known locally as Okada riders, were identified as a key vulnerable group in the Ebola response due to the large volume of people they come into close contact with on a daily basis. Through the sensitization training, Okada riders are equipped to lead a face-to-face awareness campaign aimed at educating their passengers about the virus.
According to the UNDP, the involvement of Okada riders is part of a broader awareness strategy targeted at vulnerable populations. “When the full programme is rolled out including engaging disaster management volunteers to undertake face-to-face and door-to-door sensitization and dialogue in slums and other hard to reach areas, an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 will be reached with concrete prevention messages in the next three to six months.”
Why are innovative awareness programs so critical?
Mobilizing music artists, motorbike drivers and other unconventional actors as advocates for Ebola awareness is a necessary step in West Africa’s emergency response. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone have brutal, longstanding histories of civil conflict and political insecurity. As a result, the countries’ populations have deep-seated distrust in their governments and many believe the crisis is merely a scam to attract international funds.
Both countries also severely lack the health infrastructure needed to cope with the crisis. According to an International Crisis Group statement, Liberia had a staggering 45 doctors for 4.5 million people prior to the epidemic and, since then, has been forced to close half of all health centres due to lack of medical staff. These challenges are forcing emergency responders to get creative and source new avenues for Ebola awareness.
Established cultural practices are also posing a major challenge in both countries. In Liberia, people who have passed away are traditionally buried by hand right away. But the days following a death are typically when the person’s viral load is highest and has the greatest risk of transmission. Consumption of bush meat, particularly monkey meat, is also a leading cause of Ebola transmission in Liberia. Many Liberians do not understand or believe the virus can be transmitted directly from animals.
Establishing trust and debunking these harmful myths will not be as effective coming from local governments or the international community. But, as these awareness initiatives show, engaging local actors from within vulnerable communities will go a long way in helping curb the spread of the virus.
Learn more about the UNDP’s partnership with Okada riders and check out the hit song, ‘Ebola is Real’ below.