How communicators are addressing the spread of Ebola in West Africa

The spread of Ebola in West Africa has posed comms challenges in the region, where the focus is on containing the outbreak by educating those affected, and in the UK, where reassurance is more the order of the day.

Unicef: non-traditional comms strategies are vital
Unicef: non-traditional comms strategies are vital

Dr Nuhu Maksha, one of Unicef's on-the-ground health specialists in Sierra Leone, told PRWeek that communication was key to addressing the misinformation in communities that has hindered efforts to halt the spread of the disease.

Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria are the four countries affected by the worst ever outbreak of the disease, which was first discovered in 1976.

Maksha explained that the fact there is no cure for Ebola means communities have turned to alternative methods of treatment, such as faith healers who claim to have the cure.

Unicef is stepping up comms efforts within communities affected by the virus, using every possible method including ongoing TV, radio and print campaigns.

Maksha commented that when Unicef’s efforts to educate locals began, its workers were being chased away by communities doubting the existence of Ebola. 

The virus is transmitted from wild animals and spreads in human populations through human-to-human contact, so it is being described as a "family disease".

"We’re telling people it’s a new disease, it’s a serious killer that has never been seen before, but if you can do the correct things you can protect yourself," Maksha said.

The comms offensive has included other methods such as community discussions, travelling theatre groups who sing about the virus in different dialects and T-shirts reminding people of the dangers.

While 180 people are currently on the ground communicating the virus' risks, Unicef plans to increase these efforts.

The World Health Organisation's response plan, developed with the governments of the affected countries, includes the improvement of public awareness of risk factors and prevention methods as one of six key strands of the strategy for containing Ebola.

The plan envisions spending $12.6m between July and December on "social mobilisation / public information", as part of an overall spend of more than $100m. The target is to reduce to zero the number of affected communities resisting Ebola interventions within six months.

Ebola and communication in Britain

Last week Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said after a Cobra meeting that Ebola is a "real threat" to the UK.

However, Public Health England is adamant that there is only a very small threat to the UK, and should any cases enter the country the UK is in a robust position to treat and quarantine it.

Lis Birrane, director of comms at Public Health England, said: "There was, very naturally, considerable concern among the media and the public when awareness of the extent of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa escalated last week."

Thirty people have been tested for the virus in the UK, including Commonwealth Games cyclist Moses Sesay form Sierra Leone, but all results were negative.

Birrane said: "We have provided media spokespeople for many interviews and provided hundreds of briefings for the journalists who called. Once there was an understanding of the risks the level of calls reduced, although we continue to provide updates on the .gov website and our social media channels."

Separately, Gregory Hartl, the top communicator for the WHO, has taken to Twitter to correct news stories by the likes of the BBC, Reuters and Al Jazeera. 

Historically, the virus has a high chance of killing those who contract it. The WHO’s online factsheet states that it has a 90 per cent fatality rate for those infected, but Hartl has been arguing that the fatality rate has been much less in this outbreak.

To one journalist, he commented: "Fifty per cent is still a terrible figure but please don't make it worse by saying 90 per cent."

Hartl was unavailable for comment on the matter.

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