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Communities Are Critical to Effective Disease Responses
December 19, 2014

“The most important role communities can play is to rapidly report and isolate infected patients so that the sick will not continue to infect their families and communities.”
— Saran Kaba Jones

The founder of a community development organization in Liberia — Saran Kaba Jones of FACE Africa — has mobilized community health efforts in response to the 2014 outbreak of the often-fatal infectious disease Ebola in West Africa.

Woman, four men walking on dirt road across open plain (Keiko Hiromi)
Saran Kaba Jones, left, leads health education campaigns with FACE Africa in Liberia.

Credit: Keiko Hiromi

More than 18,600 cases of the disease have caused almost 7,000 deaths in the region, according to early December data from international health monitors. As the year comes to a close, signs are emerging that the outbreak is in remission.

FACE Africa and Jones’ efforts have certainly made a contribution to the decline in cases noted in Liberia. In a Facebook chat with the YALI Network, Jones explained that she originally established FACE Africa five years ago to help improve access and awareness about safe water, sanitation and hygiene.

When Ebola presented itself as a more immediate crisis, Jones said FACE Africa redirected its efforts to the crisis of the moment.

“We leveraged our existing on-ground staff resources, extensive local knowledge and deep-rooted community trust to begin working on social mobilization, prevention and awareness programs, distribution of hygiene kits, and held public engagement activities
to counter damaging rumor, fear and misunderstanding about the virus. While it was successful, we still need to continue our work to ensure zero new cases over a long period of time.”

With thousands of YALI Network members participating in the December 16-18 Facebook chat, Jones explained the top messages her group conveyed to the communities they work in:

1) What is Ebola and how is it transmitted?
2) How to recognize the signs and symptoms of Ebola.
3) What measures and precautions to take to avoid exposure to the disease.
4) How to deal with suspected cases of Ebola.

“The most important role communities can play [in combating disease] is to rapidly report and isolate infected patients so that the sick will not continue to infect their families and communities,” Jones said.

FACE Africa is working to train about 750 volunteers in Ebola awareness and prevention procedures, an effort that has helped to expand local understanding of proper hygiene practices. That achievement should have value beyond this outbreak, Jones predicted, contributing to broader adoption of sanitation practices which can help prevent other common diseases and improve overall health.

The West African Ebola outbreak of 2014 is the largest to occur anywhere in the world, infecting more people than any other previous outbreak. Still, the experience of earlier outbreaks in other parts of Africa should prove instructional, Jones said. She points to successful efforts in recent years to control Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. Local people — working quickly, responding properly — hold the key to overcoming Ebola and other health threats.

“It is the local doctors, nurses, community health workers, burials teams, local organizations, youth associations, women’s groups, religious leaders and many volunteers, perhaps working alongside international partners, that will ultimately win this war,” Jones told the YALI Network.

The Ebola outbreak has had ripple effects in West Africa beyond the health sector: Economics, education, agriculture and transportation have also been affected. Setbacks in these other sectors must also be corrected before a full recovery can be achieved.

“It is up to us as individuals — you, me and every single one of you on this YALICHAT. We can get involved and take action. We each have what it takes to transform our continent and build healthier, more resilient communities. Not only for ourselves but for our children and our children’s children,” Jones wrote on Facebook.

Part of aiding the recovery is getting the story straight, she said. International media coverage, rumour and exaggeration have all contributed to fear and hysteria about the outbreak. In turn, this ill-informed, frightened discourse has cast an unfavorable light on Africa in general, Jones said, and everybody has a role in setting that record straight.

“But what’s missing from the narrative are the thousands of Ebola patients that have been successfully treated and discharged from treatment centers. As Africans, we need to tell these success stories.”

The Facebook chat with Saran Kaba Jones of FACE Africa is available on Facebook:
Questions on FACE Africa
Questions on community responses to Ebola
Questions on the effects of stigma

Authoritative information on the status of the West African Ebola update is available at
http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/ and http://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/situation-reports/en.