As the Ebola death toll passes 6000, some researchers are taking a different approach to counter the spread of the disease. So far, support has focused on public health measures, from vaccines and drug trials to increased facilities and equipment. However, these methods have limited efficacy if they are not combined with comprehensive understanding of local communities. To address this gap, Dr. Melissa Parker has created an online system – the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform – that helps health workers and anthropologists work more effectively by providing rapid, practical information about the socio-cultural, historical, economic and political dimensions of Ebola.
In the current Ebola epidemic, medical teams have sometimes had difficulty establishing effective community relations. This impacts the level of assistance that can be provided, and has led to some wild generalizations and misconceptions, such as that people in West Africa are “living in archaic unchanging tradition, refusing to engage with modern concepts of health”. Instead, when survivors are not provided with adequate levels of recovery and reintegration assistance, they give negative testimonies that cause communities to refuse to cooperate, to hide infected family members and to resist public-health efforts. Dr. Parker’s site seeks to build an anthropological resource that identifies the cultural factors that affect local public behaviors and attitudes. For instance, they are working to reframe stigmas and understand fears that prevent people from resuming contact with survivors, and to increase the speed at which people seek biomedical healthcare.
The project incorporates a range of stakeholders, from UK universities and anthropology initiatives in the U.S. and Europe, to in-country health and humanitarian organizations. It is led by Dr. Melissa Parker, a Reader in Medical Anthropology with a DPhil in Biological Anthropology from Oxford University, alongside her colleagues at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and partners at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex and the University of Exeter.
This platform is one of five research projects co-funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Wellcome Trust, through their Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) initiative. Both the initiative and the research projects are managed by Enhancing Learning & Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA). The joint fund provides £1.34m to the five projects, with £200,000 specifically for the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform.
The online resource functions as a platform for discussion and interaction, a gateway for rapid responses on effectively containing the epidemic, and a support network for individuals on the ground. It presents extensive knowledge of both the historical and rapidly changing contemporary context through targeted fieldwork and an international network of anthropologists with expertise in West Africa and medical anthropology. Information is provided on early detection and transmission, funeral practices and management of the dead, caring for the sick, clinical trials and research, and preparedness. In the case of future outbreaks, the information and networks gathered through the platform will facilitate a much more rapid, informed response. Additionally, it can be used to inform global health policy, foster critical debate and discussion, and advance comparative perspectives. 
For more information, visit the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform. Find the ELRHA through their website or Twitter, and follow the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on Facebook and Twitter.
This is part one of an ongoing series on the fight against Ebola. For more articles, click here.