For Jean-Pierre Masuku, the fight against the new Ebola epidemic in North Kivu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is not new. He witnessed the disease in Equateur Province, 2,500 kilometres west of the newly affected areas. “But whatever it is, you do not get used to fighting a highly dangerous, contagious and deadly disease like Ebola,” he says.
The work is definitely not over. We still have a lot of people to sensitize
Jean-Pierre Masuku is a UNICEF staffer, active in community communication. He went to Beni with the first UNICEF response team, just hours after the DRC Health Minister announced the new Ebola outbreak. “It was not easy, the first days. The scale of the crisis was not yet clear, and the material, human and financial resources for the response were lacking. But UNICEF quickly mobilized teams and the necessary means to be able to put a response in place to meet the needs.” Within ten days of the announcement, more than 20 Ebola cases have been confirmed in the two epicentres of the epidemic: Beni and the Mangina health area about 30 kilometers east of Beni.
In the fight against the disease, UNICEF has mobilized about 20 communication specialists to raise awareness among the local population. “As part of my communication activities, I visit markets, among other places. With the support of local civil organisations, I remind people that good hygiene and frequent hand washing are essential to protect oneself against the disease.”
In the central market of Beni, Jean-Pierre imperturbably repeats messages of prevention over his megaphone. At his side, members of the local civil organisation distribute prevention leaflets. “I inform people in the market that the Government has put in place a free number that they can call to report suspected Ebola cases in their community. They have to be treated quickly by competent health services to avoid any contamination around them.” While Jean Pierre communicates the toll-free number, passers-by around him record it on their cell phones. The population is clearly concerned about the epidemic. Everyone wants to protect themselves, their family and community from the deadly disease.
Jean-Pierre and his colleagues spare no effort to create a shield of informed people to help prevent the spread of the disease. “In the communication committee that UNICEF runs with the Government, we identify all the partners who can help us sensitize the local population. All ideas are welcome. They are discussed at our daily meeting.”
The work is definitely not over. We still have a lot of people to sensitize. In Mangina, Ebola’s other epicentre, Jean-Pierre’s colleagues develop similar activities. With partners, UNICEF trained dozens of local health workers. They go door-to-door to educate each family in the affected communities. Local radio stations and journalists broadcast prevention messages to their listeners and readers.
Barely a week after the outbreak was announced, UNICEF and its partners already reached more than 30,000 people with their prevention work. “Each of them is a partner in the fight against the Ebola virus. They can pass prevention messages to their families and neighbours,” says Jean-Pierre. “The work is definitely not over. We still have a lot of people to sensitize in Beni and Mangina,” he concludes.
A big smile appears on Jean-Pierre’s face when I ask him how it feels to fight the Ebola virus in North Kivu: “I’m proud that I can help eliminate the disease from my country. And I am pleased to be able to do this within UNICEF, as our organization plays a crucial role in the fight against the Ebola virus.”
Yves Willemot is Chief of Communication at UNICEF, Democratic Republic of Congo.