Moustapha Diallo, IFRC

Ebola virus disease, a highly infectious and deadly disease, continues to claim lives in West Africa. As of 9 April, Guinea has counted close to 160 suspected cases with 101 deaths. The virus which surfaced in rural Guinea and then spread to Conakry, the capital, has now also  reached neighbouring Liberia, where five fatalities have been recorded. In Mali, health officials are investigating suspected cases of Ebola. Concerns raised about its potential to spread further have prompted Senegal, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire to reinforce their epidemiological surveillance systems, and many international aid organizations, including the Red Cross, are scaling up their efforts to combat the spread, by releasing emergency funds and deploying health teams to the region.

“While there is no cure or vaccine for Ebola virus disease, its spread can be prevented,” says Aliou Boly, programme manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Guinea. “This is the first time an Ebola outbreak has occurred in West Africa, so there are a lot of misconceptions and rumours surrounding it. For example, that the disease is spread through the air. The Red Cross, through our volunteers who are in the communities, is playing an active role by providing people with accurate information and advice on how to protect themselves and prevent the disease from spreading.”

In Guinea, where the first cases were reported, Red Cross volunteers are organizing education and awareness campaigns in the most at-risk communities to teach people how to prevent the spread of the disease, while trying to reduce the fear and stigma attached to it. They are also involved in disinfecting the homes of confirmed cases, removing dead bodies, identifying and tracking those who have come into contact with suspected cases and providing psychosocial support to affected families. In neighbouring Liberia, the Red Cross is also training and mobilizing volunteers in the most at-risk counties.

Using technology to reach communities

In Sierra Leone, which borders Guinea on the northeast, and where there has not been any suspected Ebola case reported, the Red Cross, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Airtel, is using an innovative system called the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus. In a proactive move, the National Society is using SMS messaging to raise awareness about Ebola prevention in the four districts sharing borders with Guinea.

“In a short space of time, we have reached a large number of people by providing them lifesaving information about Ebola,” says Abu Bakarr Tarawellie, Under Secretary General Communication and Resource Mobilization at the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society.

Launched a couple of weeks ago, the Red Cross and Airtel have reached more than 2 million people, so far. It follows a successful campaign during a cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone last year, during which the Red Cross used the TERA SMS to provide people with the knowledge and tools they needed to protect themselves and their families. The result was a drastic reduction in the number of cholera cases.

The Red Cross has launched emergency operations in four countries in response to the Ebola virus disease outbreak. Two further operations are expected to be launched in the coming week. In Guinea, IFRC has issued an emergency appeal of 1,292,372 Swiss francs to support more than 3 million people in at-risk communities in Conakry, Guéckédou, Macenta, and Kissidougou. Funds have also been released from the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to support awareness raising activities in neighbouring countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal.