Ebola response: Mobilizing communities to stop the spread

October 16, 2014

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  • Community action is key to containing the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Accurate information on how to prevent transmission must spread faster than the disease. Photo: Jill Morehead/Mercy Corps

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa continues to spread, devastating communities and killing thousands. Mercy Corps is mounting a massive public health education campaign to stem the spread of the disease in Liberia, the epicenter of the worst outbreak in history.

So far, there have been nearly 9,000 cases of Ebola reported in the region, which have resulted in more than 4,000 deaths. This week, the World Health Organization’s Dr. Aylward delivered the unsettling news that there could be as many as 10,000 new cases of Ebola every week by December.

A heartbreaking side-effect of the deadly disease: At least 3,700 children have lost one or both parents to Ebola. Children who’ve been orphaned are usually taken in by another family member, but the disease has caused such fear and panic in some communities that many children are ostracized instead of protected.

A family in Monrovia grieves the death of six-year-old Phelicia Anthony. Photo: Courtesy of Morgana Wingard for USAID

Organizations specializing in health care are best positioned to treat those infected, but our Strategic Response & Global Emergencies team identified a major gap in the efforts to prevent transmission and keep the outbreak from spiraling out of control — one that we can address using the extensive community networks we’ve cultivated over more than a decade of working in Liberia.

Working with trusted community leaders throughout Liberia, Mercy Corps will equip two million people — half of the country’s population — with accurate facts and critical health messages to stem the spread of Ebola.

You can help by making a gift to support our emergency team today ▸

Since the outbreak began, a lack of awareness and public education about Ebola has created confusion, fear and chaos, making it even harder to contain the disease.

A public mural about Ebola is designed to make people aware of when to seek treatment, but the information needs to reach more communities throughout the country. Photo: Courtesy of Morgana Wingard for USAID

“The drama is fueled by genuine fear, a total lack of control that somehow ‘I can get this.’ That is why it is crucial that Mercy Corps fill the gap around community education,” said Mark Ferdig, Mercy Corps’ emergency team leader on the Ebola response.

According to the U.N., community engagement and activism are key to containing Ebola — especially to combat the lack of trust and misinformation that is spreading even faster than the virus.

“We must activate local networks of trusted community leaders to provide honest, clear information on how to eliminate the transmission of Ebola, and play a positive role in their community during this challenging time,” Ferdig added. “Together we can take the myth out of it. Ebola is real and the outbreak is morphing into a massive humanitarian crisis.”

In partnership with global health organization PSI, our response focuses on making accurate and up-to-date information accessible and credible, using materials developed by experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the U.N.

Current awareness campaigns are increasing, but they are not coordinated or widespread enough to beat the rate of new Ebola cases. Our efforts are designed to quickly and effectively reach more urban and rural communities with the knowledge they need to prevent transmission.

A U.N. training of volunteers to raise awareness and identify Ebola in their communities. Mercy Corps' public health education campaign will add to these existing efforts and mobilize 50,000 leaders to teach two million people throughout Liberia how to stop the spread of Ebola. Photo: Courtesy of Morgana Wingard for USAID

Trained community task forces will educate individuals and families on three key messages:

  • Protect yourself: Wash hands frequently and maintain good hygiene
  • Protect your family: Watch for fever and other signs of sickness, don’t touch anyone who may be ill or any items they’ve touched
  • Protect your community: Don’t run away or hide, seek medical attention as quickly as possible, and do not handle burials on your own.

Our emergency team is coordinating the 50,000 community leaders to each share prevention lessons at community meetings, through mass media, and by modeling the proper hygiene and safe social practices. Hand-washing stations featuring educational posters will be set up in high-transmission areas, and we’ll go door-to-door to ensure the elderly, people with disabilities and others who may be marginalized have access to this lifesaving information.

We’re also launching a SMS text message system for people to request and receive the latest news on the outbreak and report incidents on their mobile phone, free of charge.

Our staff in Liberia continues to follow precautionary measures as directed by the CDC and World Health Organization to ensure the safety and health of our team members. While we focus on this urgent Ebola response, we are reorienting our existing agricultural and youth employment programs to address the current crisis.

The longer this outbreak continues, the wider the repercussions spread. The economic impacts, in particular, are growing more severe. Quarantines and restrictions on trade are forcing businesses to close, preventing people from working and farming, and increasing prices for food, soap and other essentials. The very foundation and security of the country is being torn apart.

We are already planning ahead for the best ways to keep families from slipping further into hunger and poverty, to restore their livelihoods and revitalize markets in Liberia. But first, it’s critical that we do everything we can to help contain this outbreak at its source and equip communities to stop the spread of Ebola as quickly as possible.

How you can help

Ebola can be beat. You can help people survive this outbreak and give communities the tools needed to contain the disease. Send emergency relief and long-term solutions to families struggling with Ebola and other hardships around the world. Give now ▸