The ongoing outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is the largest and longest since the virus was discovered four decades ago. Many organisations have been fighting this epidemic and grappling with social, cultural and political factors.
The need for social science and effective communications when responding to outbreaks is clearer than ever, as is the need to look critically for lessons that can guide future efforts. The resources below summarise the various institutions helping to fight the epidemic and highlight communication efforts.
By Rachel Thomas
Rachel Thomas maps out the various institutions involved in the response and reviews communication challenges.
The UN, the WHO and governments
The outbreak is being fought by more individuals and institutions than can ever be listed. But there are a few key players.
The role of the UN is broader than that of the WHO. Its involvement includes technical and logistical support. The UN secretary-general has created the Global Ebola Response Coalition, with representatives from affected areas, NGOs, donors and other agencies, which holds weekly meetings to help maintain operational consistency.
The secretary-general also appointed a special envoy to direct response policies and strategies, and to strengthen support for the affected areas. For this crisis, the UN set up its first emergency health mission, the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), which is helping with activities such as managing cases of infection, tracing infected people’s contacts and conducting safe and dignified burials. Other UN organisations, such as the World Food Programme (WFP) andUnicef, are supporting the response with activities such as distributing food, health supplies and infrastructure.
The governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are actively fighting Ebola. Together with the WHO, they havedevised a plan to coordinate the response at different levels,create public awareness about risky and safe behaviours, prevent and control Ebola’s spread and put in place clinical interventions. Nigeria and Senegal also had cases but tackled them quickly, thanks to a response including swift testing of all suspected cases in Senegal and rapidly establishing an Emergency Operations Centre in Nigeria.
MSF, which provides front-line medical care in crisis-hit areas,sounded the alarm about the Ebola epidemic before it reached the world stage, and its staff have remained on the ground throughout. The charity’s webpages dedicated to the Ebola emergency provide information on the disease, MSF’s activities and updates from the field including a blog written by staff working in affected countries. A recent report released one year after the start of the outbreak takes a hard look at the response, criticises global inaction and warns that the epidemic is not yet over.
Several other international NGOs are involved in the response – USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI)provides names and contact details. NGOs have varied roles. For example, the charity Save the Children is building and managing clinical treatment units, running awareness campaigns and training community healthcare workers. Other NGOs with major involvement include Oxfam, the International Rescue Committeeand Plan International, which are providing support in areas such as coordination, early warning systems, water and health infrastructure, and food aid.
As the outbreak eases, those involved are asking what can be done better in future health emergencies. The WHO has highlighted the need for basic health infrastructure, coordinated action and learning from success stories. MSF has pointed to the failure of multiple institutions to act effectively, including poor leadership from the WHO on coordination. Research on this and previous outbreaks has also found it is crucial to actively engage the people affected, beyond merely correcting misinformation, if epidemics are to be contained. But the process of reflection and learning is far from over.