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At a glance: Nigeria

In Nigeria, social mobilizers fight Ebola – and misinformation

By Patrick Moser

Educating the public about Ebola transmission and prevention is a critical part of efforts to contain the outbreak. In Nigeria, the information campaign is taking on an added importance as schools reopen. UNICEF is supporting a major social mobilization effort through deployment of outreach teams door-to-door and to public gathering places.

© UNICEF Nigeria/2014/Moser
Uchechi, 7, shows she has learned how to properly wash her hands. Social mobilizers visited her home in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, as part of a UNICEF-supported effort to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus.

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, 17 September 2014 – Asked how she can protect herself from Ebola, 7-year-old Uchechi exclaims, “I go wash hand before chop” – pidgin for “I wash my hands before eating.” She then proudly demonstrates how it is done.

With schools in Nigeria set to reopen on 22 September, it is crucial that children understand how simple measures like hand washing can help keep them safe.

In a small courtyard shared by 16 families, Uchechi and her family and neighbours have gathered to hear about the Ebola virus disease. Uchechi listens intently as a social mobilizer explains how to avoid transmission of the virus.

The messages are simple: “Wash your hands frequently. Do not touch dead bodies. If someone shows symptoms – like fever, vomiting or diarrhea – report to health authorities.”

Social mobilizer Atinuke Ogundare answers a question from a mother of five. “If someone is sick with Ebola and hides,” she says, “that person can infect your family, your community, hundreds of people.”

Public outreach

Since the start of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Nigeria has had far fewer cases – 19, as of 13 September – than Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone. In part, this is a result of a focused strategy to contain the disease, implemented by the Government, with strong support from international partners.

Educating the public about Ebola is a key element of the strategy, and UNICEF is supporting a major social mobilization effort, deploying teams to households, markets and bus stops.

Rumors and misinformation – even the belief that Ebola does not really exist – are still far too common in Nigeria.

© UNICEF Nigeria/2014/Moser
Health worker Ibise Daka walks through a marketplace in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, explaining how people can protect themselves from Ebola.

“Ebola is real. It is not a political plot,” health worker–turned–town crier Ibise Daka proclaims in a deep baritone voice. “Protect yourself, your family and your community,” he announces, using a megaphone so he can be heard over the din of a Port Harcourt marketplace.

The teams explain that while there is no cure, early treatment increases the chances of survival.

At one household, several young men joke about the disease, and listen half-heartedly to the explanations. They do, however, allow the team to put up posters about Ebola on the front of their house.

One of them, 21-year-old student Calvin Caro, appears well informed about the disease. But when asked what he would do if an Ebola survivor visited him, he rolls his eyes and says, “I would stay inside my house and lock my door.”

Fighting the stigma

Stigmatization is a major issue. Survivors and their families report losing their jobs, being kicked out of their homes and being ostracized by the community, sometimes even threatened. People point at them in the street, laugh at them and give them a wide berth.

The social mobilizers stress that Ebola survivors released from the treatment facility are no longer sick and cannot transmit the virus. The mobilizers encourage people to show their love and support to survivors and their families. Caro appears dubious at first, but eventually says he will share the message with his fellow students.

“Knowledge is a powerful weapon in battling not only the spread of the disease, but also the stigmatization of those it has affected. It is particularly important to disseminate the truth about Ebola now that schools are set to reopen,” says Hilary Ozoh, a UNICEF Communications Specialist.

“It is encouraging to see young children, like Uchechi,” he says, “who clearly have listened very attentively to the message we are disseminating.”



UNICEF Photography: Ebola community outreach

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