Ebola responders tap past survivors, youth in community-based strategy

Young men volunteer for Guinea Red Cross to share information about Ebola prevention in the country. To fight the stigma associated with having Ebola, Last Mile Health is hiring survivors of the disease. Photo by: CDC Global / CC BY

As the Ebola outbreak continues to wreak havoc in West Africa, those who survived the disease in the past can now play an important role in responding to the current crisis, a top U.S. global health expert suggests.

In the past 10 years, almost 2,500 survivors of 11 outbreaks are still scattered around several African countries, according to data compiled by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We know that the people who have had Ebola and survived and developed antibodies, we believe that they are resistant for about 10 years,” Lynn Black, chief medical officer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told Devex. “Because the stigma is so profound, we’re going to start hiring the people who have had Ebola to come work with us.”

Black is chair of the board for Last Mile Health, which has recruited Ebola survivors as one of several community-based approaches to battle the virus in West Africa.

The strategy not only mitigates fear and misinformation, she explained, but also restores trust in the health systems of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, now in a virtual state of collapse as a result of the epidemic.

“Not only that,” Black said, “but what better person than someone who’s experienced the disease? And what does that do for stature in the community, now that they’re an esteemed health care worker?”

Incorporating traditional healers, village chiefs and religious leaders is also an integral part of the the outreach strategy, she noted.

Meanwhile, Mercy Corps is adding local youth to the list of potential networks to aid in prevention and education efforts.

The organization — which has maintained projects in Liberia since 2002 — will engage its present 12,000-strong youth program focused on capacity building in a phone tree-inspired structure to activate networks, Mercy Corps Vice President of Programs Craig Redmond told Devex.

Youth will be equipped to go out and educate communities with key messages on Ebola prevention over a 6-month period, using materials provided by the CDC, UNICEF and the World Health Organization.

“We’re starting out with 1,000 master trainers, who will then reach out to another 2,500 community trainers, who will then reach out to 50,000 people, and so on,” he said.

Past projects, Redmond explained, offer a wealth of experience and expertise for mobilizing prevention efforts.

“You need to make sure the quality stays high,” he said, a problem that can be in-part mitigated by the message itself. In this case, education and prevention materials are illustration-based, designed to transcend language and literacy barriers, he noted.

According to Black, creating sustainable, lasting solutions to poor health care is another challenge — especially given the recurrent and destructive nature of Ebola in countries with poor health infrastructure.  

“We’re following this up very quickly with primary health care; it isn’t just a drop-in response,” Black said. “This has to be the full continuum of health care support, because Ebola will be back in a few years.”

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

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