ebola
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West Africa: Combatting Ebola Online and Offline

Ebola is highly contagious and life threatening. Outbreaks tend to come in waves and to spread quickly. Now the Mano River Union countries of West Africa - Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Ivory Coast are battling to combat the spread of the Ebola Virus using both online and traditional media platforms.

Since cases started to appear in Guinea, social media and community journalism have been effectively used to inform both the urban literate population and the rural uneducated folks about the Zaire Ebola Virus. This is the deadliest strain of the disease with a 90% fatality rate.

The number of cases and recorded deaths keep rising in Guinea and Liberia. Yet the Sierra Leone health and sanitation minister Miatta Kargbo confirmed there were no cases of Ebola in the country. Senegal, which borders with Guinea, has already closed its borders, but Sierra Leone has kept it borders with its neighbours open.

“Getting the word out about how to prevent the spread of the disease across borders matters most at this time,” Dr. Brima Kargbo, Sierra Leone’s chief medical officer said in an interview in the capital Freetown. “The borders separating the Mano River Union countries are porous, therefore the region is using available information communication technology to network with each other and inform its citizenry about the risk factors and how to keep communities safe against a disease that has no cure,” he added.

The countries threatened by the Ebola Virus, with support from the World Health Organisation, hold teleconferences daily to update each other about the status of the disease in their respective countries, Dr. Brima Kargbo said. “The Communication gadgets made available to us by WHO have made it easy to consult and share resources with our neighbours on how to combat the disease from spreading beyond the region; and these teleconferences have proved to be very effective.”

Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone, like other countries across the region, radio has been the most influential for public education. Various organisations have been on community and commercial radios to spread the word. This is working well for the rural farmers most of whom have very little education. But the use of mobile phone text messaging systems and the social media platform WhatsApp messenger have worked well for the educated classes. 

A text message jointly from the Red Cross and Ministry of Health and Sanitation to Airtel subscribers in the country read “Help prevent EBOLA by reporting all suspected cases immediately to the nearest health facility.” Another text sent on April 9 read “Prevent Ebola, handle patients with care and use protective wear like gloves, glasses and masks.” These daily text messages to subscribers have proved very helpful.

Referring to the viability of text messaging in addressing the disease, Dr. Brima Kargbo said, “I got a text from the District Medical Officer in Kambia that there was no confirmed case of Ebola in the district.”  Radio presenters have been blending text messages and phone calls in discussions on Ebola. “I think that [the] style of presentation on the Ebola threat has been effective in Sierra Leone,” Alie Bai Kamara, a presenter on Citizen Radio east of Freetown, said in an interview on April 8.

Sierra Leone has about 2 million mobile phone subscribers. WhatsApp messenger is now the premier source for breaking news on social media in the country and has been used by individuals to raise awareness of the disease. Photos of people infected with Ebola have been floating around on WhatsApp and even Facebook groups have been sharing those pictures. 

Liberia

In Liberia, the Government has so far relied on the local media to advise the population on containing the deadly disease. Press conferences and daily briefings to newspapers, radio and television are the most effective medium, Elise Zoker, reporting for Bloomberg News in Monrovia, stated in an email on March 31. 

“So far social media hasn't been used, neither text messages [or] via mobile phones. Coverage of the three main GSM networks is over 1.9 million. The figure will increase to nearly 3 million if we include the government's LIBTELCO,” Elise Zoker stated.  “What is gradually proving to be most effective is messages channeled through Community Radio Stations. New developments are immediately provided on the above channels,” she said.

Elise Zoker claimed that, “Not many monitor twitter and those on Facebook have not been posting info on the disease as is done in other places.”

Guinea

The Republic of Guinea is most hard-hit by the disease. Therefore, the Guinea Government and international partners like Doctors Without Borders, WHO and Unicef, practically use all communication channels to inform the people about the Ebola disease, Ougna Elie Camara reporting for Bloomberg News in Conakry, Guinea stated in an email on March 31.

“Besides the radio, TV, social media, text messages, we can maybe add religious leaders in churches and mosques, and town criers,” Ougna Elie Camara said.  

“According to a report of the state-owned Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, the number of mobile-phone subscribers is estimated at 6.8 million as at September 2013. But you must also note that an important part of these subscribers are illiterate and live in villages. They do not often read messages. These are reached with community and rural radios, as well as the town criers,” he said. 

“Social networks such as Facebook and twitter are not frequently used as workers are informed through press agencies, international radios and information websites,” he added.

The region is struggling to curb the scourge of the Ebola disease and almost all the available channels of communication have been used. Deaths in Guinea are above 100 but cases in Liberia are still in single digits. Sierra Leone has no reported case yet. None of this is ideal, but the situation would definitely have been worst without the robust use of information communication technology and traditional media.

 

Silas Gbandia is a journalist in Sierra Leone working for Citizen Radio, The Punch newspaper and a stringer for Bloomberg News

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Silas Gbandia

Silas Gbandia, Producer, Citizen Radio Freetown

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