Liberia has been recognized as free of Ebola transmission, 42 days after the burial of the last confirmed case. But social mobilizers continue their outreach campaigns, warning that the threat isn’t over, while expanding their focus to other health issues.
For Dao Kamara, the battle against Ebola sometimes means trekking as long as 12 hours to help local communities protect themselves from the virus, which has claimed the lives of more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since the start of the outbreak last year.
Although Liberia was declared free of Ebola transmission on 9 May, the 52-year-old insists the war on the deadly scourge won’t be over until it has been defeated in Guinea and Sierra Leone.
“Our neighbouring countries are still having this disease. So it’s a big challenge,” says Mr. Kamara, who is UNICEF’s mobilization coordinator in Liberia’s Gili District.
Like thousands of volunteers across the country, he has spent countless hours going door-to-door, telling communities how to protect themselves from Ebola – by handwashing, reporting sick people and allowing specialized teams to conduct safe burials.
Mr. Kamara insists it is essential to reach even the most remote communities, to make sure everyone understands the measures that will keep them safe. And sometimes there is just one way to get there: “We walk 11 to 12 hours through the bushes,” he says.
Religious, political and traditional leaders have been highly vocal – and successful – in spreading the message. One of them is Chief of Chiefs Henry M. Larkie.
“I saw what Ebola did to our country, what it did to myself,” says Mr. Larkie, sitting in his Lonfaye Town office – a desk and some benches arranged under a thatched roof.
When his daughter died of Ebola in Monrovia, the capital, Larkie hired a taxi to bring her back to the village for burial. He says he had no idea at the time that he was putting himself and others at risk, but he did eventually allow a specialized team to conduct a safe burial and accepted that the town be placed under quarantine for 21 days, the monitoring period for new infections.
His action sent a powerful message to local communities.
Because corpses of Ebola victims are highly infectious but traditional burial rituals call for the washing of bodies by relatives, convincing people of the need for safe burials has been one of the most challenging – and crucial – tasks of the social mobilization teams.
Mr. Kamara believes the outreach campaigns have paid off. “Communities are taking action,” he says. “They call you and say, ‘This man is not safe. We want you to convince him to take him to the clinic to be triaged.’”
In a recent report presented to the World Bank, the Liberian Ministry of Health has also recognized the importance of community engagement, noting its “critical role in rolling back the epidemic”.
Helping communities help themselves has involved a huge deployment of resources. UNICEF and partners have reached over one million people at community gatherings and some 412,000 households through door-to-door visits, and helped train more than 32,000 traditional and religious leaders, teachers and front-line social mobilizers.
The social mobilization efforts directed towards Ebola response are now being increasingly applied for prevention of other diseases and general health promotion.
In Lonfaye Town, a few dozen residents stand on the dusty ground, under the shade of a large tree, to listen to social mobilizers announcing a week-long measles and polio vaccination campaign. Emmanuel Estupa, 30, does not mince his words in explaining the importance of vaccinating children.
“Who wants to see spots all over their children?” he asks. “Who wants to see their children die? Who wants their children to become crippled?” Estupa answers the rhetorical questions himself: “We all want our children to be healthy.”
Published: 8 May 2015. By Patrick Moser
Copyright © 2015 UNICEF