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“Help yourself protect yourself”: Changing People’s Perceptions and Practices for Ebola Prevention

adolescent ebola prevention
© UNICEF Gambia
Anna Marie Mendy, 13 years-old from Brikama Ba village, educates her peers at school on how to protect themselves from Ebola

“I was trained on Ebola to sensitize my community for prevention,” said 55-year-old Imam  Baboucarr Sy, also alikalo  of Fass Abdou, a small village on the Senegal-Gambia border in the Central River Region (CRR) of the Islamic Republic of The Gambia (IRTG). 

“Ebola exists and kills fast, but only the Almighty Allah and prayers can save us from it,” continued Imam Sy. “If Allah declares Ebola on us, nothing can prevent it. It is a curse that cannot harm those with strong religious faith.”

In their quest to sensitize community members on Ebola prevention, personnel from the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MoHSW), UNICEF, WHO, the Gambia Red Cross Society and other partners in the country struggle to change perceptions such as Imam Baboucarr Sy’s. 

Although the country is conducting surveillance at official borders and no confirmed Ebola case has been reported in the IRTG, partners are concerned because the country shares permeable borders with Senegal, which reported one confirmed case in 2015. Unprepared border villages like Fass Abdou would therefore pose a huge threat to the IRTG if Ebola breaks out in Senegal.

Despite these small pockets of resistant villages, overall, the Gambian people are ready to do what it takes to protect themselves. But getting them to establish a culture of practising improved personal and environmental hygiene has been a challenge.   

“When we first started creating awareness on Ebola, the absence of institutionalized hygiene practices that can prevent the disease was concerning,” admitted 31-year-old Modou C Jobe, a Public Health Officer (PHO) working for the MoHSW in the CRR. 

Good personal and environmental hygiene practises are low in the country – hand washing with soap is currently at 10.1 per cent nationally, according to the 2013 Demographics and Health Survey. 

With UNICEF support, much emphasis is being placed on targeting village heads, chairpersons of Village Development Committees,  traditional healers, religious leaders, the media and the general public countrywide with culturally sensitive, target tailored communication materials and messages on Ebola, focusing on signs, transmission, prevention and reporting.

“Several of our cultural practices promote the spread of Ebola which is why non-stop sensitization is important,” said Sariba Conta, a traditional communicator living in Saruja Village in the CRR, supporting Ebola message dissemination at community level to complement media interventions. Some of these practices include caring for the sick at home, performing burial rites that include physical contact with the corpse, and handshaking as a show of fraternity and respect.  

woman - ebola prevention
© UNICEF Gambia
Fatou Wanding Dibassy of McCathy Island collects Ebola prevention information posters and shares them with family and friends

“As a result of the work being done by our groups, the media, health workers, volunteers and other people fighting Ebola, many Gambians are now convinced of its existence and are taking measures to protect themselves,” said Sariba.

Sariba  specifically targets adolescents and mothers, such as 30-year-old mother of 8 from Boiram village, CRR, Mamtut Ngallen; mother of 6 from McCathy Island, CRR, Fatou Wanding Dibassy – age unknown; and 13-year-old schoolgirl, Anna Marie Mendy, from Brikamaba village, CRR. 

“I encourage young people to wash their hands with soap and water often, keep their body and clothes clean, and avoid shaking hands or sharing a bed with non-family members,” said Anna Marie, a Grade 6 student. “I also tell them to avoid putting dirty hands in their mouths and eyes.” 

“As well as educating others on what I’ve learned about Ebola prevention, I also collect Ebola posters and share them with family and friends,” said Fatou Wanding Dibassy.

Mamtut Ngallen’s major concern is for her children, the youngest of whom is 5-years-old. To protect them, she uses every opportunity to educate other mothers in her village and surrounding villages about protecting themselves and their children again Ebola. 

“I also tell them about the signs and symptoms which include fever, diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach pain and head aches,” explained Mamtut. “You also bleed from the eyes, mouth, nose and ears when you are very sick. I tell them that people suspected of having Ebola should be kept away from others until they can be taken straight to the hospital.” 

“Sometimes, some people say ‘it is the will of Allah and nothing can help,” added Mamtut. “I tell them that Allah said ‘help yourself first and I then will help you’. We have got to help ourselves protect ourselves from Ebola!”

To complement the communication interventions, UNICEF supported the procurement and distribution of hygiene supplies including soap, chlorine and bleach to critical health facilities and border points for disinfection and hand washing. 

“Water supply is available at critical entry points to the country while water points at border towns and villages have been disinfect,” said PHO Modou C Jobe. 

More importantly, schools are being prepared to tackle Ebola head-on with an EVD Preparedness Response Plan, tailored specifically for schools. 

“Like everything else there is still room for improvement,” said PHO Modou C Jobe. “But I believe that as a nation, we have put in place all that is required to continue keeping Ebola out of the country,” concluded Modou C Jobe. “And we are hopeful that it will stay out.” 



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