After vacationing for three weeks in the United States and discussing my work in Senegal with family, friends, professors and former colleagues, I arrived back to hear the news that the first case of Ebola was seen in the capital city, Dakar. Since I live in West Africa, most people assumed Ebola was personally affecting my life considering all the hype American media has created about the epidemic. I reiterated that Senegal had yet to see a case. That is, until last Friday, the day I arrived back.
Reuters reported that as of Friday August 29, over 3,000 people have been registered with the virus. The World Health Organization has now predicted that it could infect over 20,000 people before it is contained. Its new Ebola Response Roadmap, costing over $480 million, stop Ebola in 6-9 months and stop international spread. Safety trials of the Ebola vaccine are being accelerated and will hopefully be put to use in September.
While it is clear that developing medical solutions and sending doctors to infected areas is the most basic response, major short and long-term efforts in both communication and education are necessary to stop the spread of the disease. The most critical piece is figuring out how to communicate and educate the populations directly involved in the crisis.
The most immediate, short-term ways to use communication and education to contain Ebola is through explaining and sensitizing the population about the disease. The World Health Organization publishes its Weekly Epidemiological Record, but most of the people directly affected by Ebola might likely do not have the means or know how to find this kind of information. Typically, radio is used throughout West Africa as the main medium of communication, but organizations such as UNICEF and Y En a Marre (civil society group in Senegal) are getting creative. UNICEF, understanding the importance of music in Liberian culture, sponsored a rap song with a local radio station to communicate and educate about the disease. Y En a Marre, born in Senegal during the 2012 presidential elections as a group to protect the constitutional rights of Senegalese citizens, has begun to use social media and infographics in the local language, Wolof, to explain methods of prevention.
In Senegal, within minutes of the original announcement of the first case of Ebola, Facebook and Twitter were buzzing with news articles, cries of fear and even some xenophobic initial reactions towards the lone Guinean student who brought the disease to their dear capital. People in Dakar are pretty internet literate, so this method of information dissemination can be very effective for this population. The mobile phone is another crucial communications tool being used for development in Africa, with over 600 million phones on the continent. A week after the outbreak in Senegal, the Senegalese national telecommunications company, Sonatel, sent every user an SMS with a message from the Ministry of Health. This helped transmit prevention methods to over 90% of the over 12 million Senegalese people directly.
It is clear in a situation of crisis, we must focus on the short-term priorities, in this case, stopping the disease. However, we must not forget the long-term goals which will help to completely prevent other outbreaks of this nature. If we forget to invest in these priorities now, we will continue to see problems like this repeat themselves.
The most important thing we can do in the long-term is teach basic literacy, numeracy and basic hygiene. How can we expect people to understand the written communications produced by international organizations and governments if they cannot read? How can we expect people to wash their hands frequently if they don’t understand what a germ is and how it is spread? We need to start by improving access to basic education at all levels- children, adolescents and adults- so that the billions of dollars spent on improving health and sanitation will actually be able to take effect.
The idea behind development in Africa is to provide the people with the skills to manage their own livelihoods. Even in crises like the Ebola outbreak, when most people think about health-driven solutions, we must prioritize educating and communicating with communities in a way they can understand to maximize the efforts being done in all other domains of development. As the international development community continues to plan for post 2015, I urge international organizations, NGOs, businesses and individuals to invest in basic education now, and I am sure we will see huge results in the near future.