Equipped with awareness posters and flipbooks and dressed in thick rubber boots to withstand the heavy seasonal rains, Anthony Vorkpor and his team set out to conduct another day of Ebola education in New Kru Town, a densely populated borough in Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia.
As frontline workers in the fight against Ebola – linked to over 700 deaths in Liberia since March – these “animators”, as they are called, are playing a crucial role in stopping the spread of this virus in one of the hardest-hit communities.
UNICEF currently has over 100 animators and communicators moving from house to house in both Lofa and Montserrado Counties in Liberia – the epicentres of the Ebola epidemic. These teams are working with communities to increase awareness, promote discussion, quell fears and clarify misconceptions about the virus, and how to protect oneself against it.
The animators are trained to ask community members questions to demonstrate that they have understood. If they cannot answer the questions, the animators repeat the information, slowly and patiently, until it is retained. Since the animators are assigned to specific communities for months at a time, they are then able to return to the same houses, time and again. This gives them the opportunity to check up on the families; to ensure that they remember the messages; and to see if they are adopting the protective and preventive behaviours and practices that were suggested.
Since late May – the start of the second wave of the epidemic – over 1,300 suspected, probable and confirmed cases have been reported across 12 of the country’s 15 counties. Recognizing the devastating impact Ebola could have on children as well as on the broader Liberian population, UNICEF has been working closely with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare to stop its spread.
In addition to providing critical supplies and offering technical expertise, there was an urgent need for us to help tackle rumours and misconceptions about Ebola.To implement the intensive, community-level outreach that this would require, we needed help. So we looked to our existing partners and contracted them to go into Liberian communities to conduct door-to-door education and awareness campaigns. Anthony and his team are from one of these organizations, known as CODES or, Community Development Services.
“Before the Ebola outbreak we wasn’t in the know of it,” said Lee Wlejleh, a 19-year-old youth leader from New Kru Town. “The Ministry of Health met with our youth to sensitize our young people. Some believed, but others said no, it’s not here. Then the CODES animators came to help.”
With support from CODES, Lee and fellow youth leaders were able to convince many of their peers that Ebola is real. According to Anthony, one reason for CODES’ effectiveness is the Ebola awareness posters and flipbook that the animators use – developed by UNICEF. These flipbooks explain some of Ebola’s symptoms and modes of transmission, and what individuals and families can do to protect themselves from it, using both pictures and simple Liberian English.
In the course of their outreach, the animators sit with community members and go through the flipbooks, page by page, imparting the life-saving information they contain. Sometimes, this process can take an hour or more, as community members often have many questions and comments, to which the animators must respond.
This intensive interpersonal dialogue is making a real difference in the communities where the animators work. Victoria Wesseh, a long-time New Kru Town resident, says that when she first heard about Ebola from the news and other sources, she felt scared and even doubted the existence of the virus. By visiting her home more than three times, CODES was able to break through her wall of suspicion. According to her, it was the group’s persistence and focus on concrete actions that can be taken to prevent Ebola that led to their success.
“These people gave us guidelines on how to prevent Ebola,” she said. “They told us how to protect ourselves. They told us we shouldn’t be afraid and encouraged us to go to the clinic. They brushed the doubt from my mind.”
Stories like Victoria’s show that, when done right, the interpersonal communication strategies – and brave partners who are implementing them – can help in the fight against Ebola. But with the number of cases rising every day, it is clear that more outreach by these groups is desperately needed.
With this in mind, UNICEF, the Ministry of Health and other partners are working to build and coordinate a large network of outreach workers, both Government and non-governmental, that can work across Liberia to deliver life-saving messages to even the most remote and resistant villages.
Working with the Ministry, UNICEF alone plans to train up to 1,250 Government Community Health Volunteers in six counties to conduct this work. With medical care for Ebola patients still limited, the nationwide education on Ebola these volunteers provide may be the key to ending this outbreak.
Carolyn Marie Kindelan is Communications Officer working for UNICEF Liberia.