Talking the talk – fighting Ebola through public health campaigns

Seventy years worth of experience working to combat the spread of infectious diseases has taught us that public health campaigning will be critical in stopping the spread of Ebola. Here, Jonathan Mazliah outlines how Oxfam is working with communities to fight Ebola

The official death toll from Ebola is now over 5,000 people (real figures are likely to be much higher) and the number is continuing to rise fast.  Once contracted, the Ebola virus is devastating. Around 70 percent of those infected will die from the disease.

Ebola has never been seen in West Africa before, and neither medical staff nor the general public are familiar with it. As the deadly virus spreads, lack of knowledge about Ebola, fear of infection and stigmatisation of the infected and their families represent significant problems for those developing an effective Ebola response.

As this response evolves, prevention and treatment must go hand-in-hand, with a scale-up of both treatment centres and community-based public health campaigns. 

Working with communities 

Ebola: Barriers to interventionOxfam’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene work (WASH) involves educating communities by engaging with local and traditional authorities and equipping them with the means to protect themselves and those they have responsibility for. This plays a vital role in preventing new infections and maximising the impact of treatment and containment. When the solutions are grounded in the communities themselves, they are far more likely
to be adopted into the rituals of daily life.

Oxfam plans to provide assistance for 3.2 million people in Sierra Leone and Liberia with a proposed budget of £22m ($35m).

  • We will work with others to halt the Ebola virus outbreak through providing information, hygiene assistance, and access to safe water to prevent infection in communities. 
  • We will play a role in giving a voice to communities and their concerns to improve the effectiveness of treatment centres and therefore contribute to the overall response. 
  • We will provide the practical means for communities to protect themselves; affected communities often lack basic water and sanitation infrastructure.

Knowledge is power

Oxfam may not specialise in medical responses, but it has had 70 years of working with communities in developing countries around the world – many spent combating the spread of infectious but entirely preventable diseases, such as cholera and malaria. Our experiences show that one key to halting the spread of Ebola will be a massive scale-up in public health campaigns. Misconceptions among affected populations must be challenged and attitudes towards the disease must be changed. 

Public health campaigns involving community engagement and social mobilisation are key

  • While 97% of people believe Ebola exists in Sierra Leone, only 36% would avoid physical contact with others they suspected of having the disease.
  • More than a third of Sierra Leoneans believe that Ebola can be treated successfully through spiritual healers or that bathing with salt and hot water can prevent Ebola.
  • Local burial practices of washing and touching the dead body are a key cultural tradition, but also a major source of new infections 

Public health campaigns involving community engagement and social mobilisation are the key to changing this. Engaging and mobilising communities – giving them the knowledge, the understanding and the skills to fight Ebola themselves – must be made a priority in the response of the international community. Without this, misinformation and rumours will worsen an already fraught situation.

Oxfam is calling on donors and implementing partners to ensure that public health campaigns and community mobilisation are fully funded and swiftly implemented. 

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Author: Jonathan Mazliah
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.