From 2014 to 2016, Ebola killed 11,000 people in West Africa, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Red Cross volunteers and staff across West Africa worked around the clock to help halt the disease from spreading, including in the 10 neighbouring countries across the region (Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea- Bissau, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire).

Here are the five lessons we’ve learned from working and communicating with communities affected by the Ebola epidemic in West Africa:

Communities engagement in rural communities in Togo

1. Communities play a vital role in preventing and responding to epidemics

There are strong traditional beliefs and stigmas around Ebola in many communities in West Africa. Effective communication is crucial to helping communities abandon deep-rooted beliefs and take actions to prevent disease or treatment for illnesses.

This can be done by listening to people’s fears, perceptions and beliefs about Ebola and by tailoring key messages and social mobilisation activities to address these fears.

“We did not know what quarantine was and why it was important for stopping Ebola. Many people would not allow any of their family to be quarantined. But the Red Cross community engagement volunteers convinced us about the importance of quarantine, and we now accept it in our communities,” says Mrs. Khadidiatou Baro from Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire.

Mali Red Cross hosts a local radio show to encourage dialogue in the community

2. Do not underestimate radio

Across 10 countries, IFRC helped put together more than 10,000 interactive radio programs, reaching almost 600,000 beneficiaries.

Radio was essential in addressing stigmas and risky practices that fuelled the spread of the disease. The shows were anchored by both Red Cross volunteers and media practitioners. Many shows included dramas, quizzes and call-ins from the public.

3. Community-based response can be the difference between an isolated outbreak and a national catastrophe.

A key lesson in the response to the Ebola outbreak was engaging with and mobilising communities to bring the epidemic under control.

Good community engagement also helped responders to gain an insight into the perceptions, behaviours and priorities of different groups, which lead to more effective and targeted messaging.

Providing life-saving health and sanitation information in Burkina Faso

4. Trusted, clear and effective communication and engagement proved critical to ensuring that fear and rumours did not undermine response efforts.

“Diseases like meningitis used to be considered a curse. The Red Cross volunteers have made people believe that meningitis is really an illness,” says Jean Kodolou from northern Togo.

Red Cross volunteers worked with their communities to address risky beliefs and practices and to improve knowledge about disease prevention. Effective communication helped volunteers get accepted and to easily access affected areas.

Volunteers engage communities in Benin

5. Responding to epidemics is much costlier than preventing them

In countries where there is a high risk of epidemics, the Red Cross and Red Crescent have a unique position in prevention, monitoring and responding to outbreaks. Using the locally-based volunteer network to share clear information in an epidemic was vital. It enabled people to act to prevent disease and reduce fear and misinformation.

Ultimately, we have witnessed the power of communications in saving countless lives.

This week, Red Cross is at the International Social Behavioural Chance Communication Summit in Indonesia to share best practices and better understand how to improve how we engage and work with communities around the world. Follow the conversation online: #SBCCSummit