Ebola in the DRC: How children are stopping the spread of the virus

Children are raising awareness about Ebola in schools and at home to keep their communities safe

By Typhaine Daems
A girl sits at a desk, Democratic Republic of Congo
UNICEF DRC/2018

08 June 2018

MBANDAKA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 8 June 2018 – When a friend or neighbour greets 12-year-old Cristevie with an outstretched hand, she smiles, but keeps her arms firmly at her sides.

“Even if you ask me to shake hands, I will not give you my hand. I just say hello from afar,” she says.

Ever since a new outbreak of the Ebola virus reached her town a few weeks ago, Cristevie has become committed to halting the spread of the disease. Limiting physical contact is just one of the prevention methods she learned in school.

“Wash your hands all the time to keep Ebola away,” she says to anyone who will listen.

 

Children look at a poster about Ebola, Democratic Republic of the Congo
UNICEF/UN0215064/Naftalin
UNICEF-supported social mobilizers address a group of children in central Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur Province. Since the start of the Ebola outbreak, UNICEF and partners have reached more than 300,000 people with lifesaving information about how to avoid contracting the deadly virus.
Communication to contain a virus

Fifty-three cases have been confirmed in the current outbreak in DRC’s northwestern Equateur Province (as of 30 May). The first case was reported in a remote town of Iboko but it soon spread to Mbandaka, a city of 1.2 million. This heightened concerns about rapid transmission, as controlling a virus once it reaches a large urban area is particularly challenging.

One of the most important tools for containing the virus is communication: sharing information and tips on early symptoms and how to avoid contracting the disease. UNICEF and partners are rapidly organizing awareness campaigns in schools in affected areas, in addition to installing hand washing stations and providing thermometers to take students’ temperatures twice a day.

One of those schools is Cristevie’s.

 

A boy sits at a desk, Democratic Republic of Congo
UNICEF DRC/2018
Vivian sits at a desk at the School of New Life in Wangata, Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of Congo. She is helping to spread the messaging about avoiding contact to prevent the spread of Ebola.
Changing habits

The School of New Life in Wangata, one of the municipalities of the town of Mbandaka, has 564 primary school students, mainly vulnerable children from pygmy and fishing communities.

In an effort to eliminate close contact during the epidemic, school administrators have decided to stop recess until further notice. “Ebola is a very dangerous illness and the school playground is conducive to contamination,” explains head teacher, Freddy Mokambabwe. He says that like all children, his students run all over, chase each other, play football and fall over.

Avoiding contact also includes not greeting each other and no longer shaking hands, a lesson Cristevie and classmates have taken to heart.

Sixth-grader Vivian has also changed his habits. “If my brother hasn’t washed his hands before eating, I refuse to eat with him,” he says. “Normally Dad puts water in the wash basins, but if there isn’t any, I put it in myself.” Vivian emphasizes that no one in the family has an excuse for not washing their hands. 

 
A child washes his hands at a bucket, Democratic Republic of the Congo
UNICEF/UN0216201/Naftalin
A UNICEF Education Officer looks on as a boy washes his hands at Ikenge School in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo. To date, UNICEF and its partners have worked with more than 2,500 teachers and 53,000 pupils to raise awareness on prevention and protection measures to contain Ebola.
Prevention, prevention, prevention

Romain is the proud teacher of Cristevie, Vivian and 62 other students in the sixth grade. Over the next few days, his young prodigies must take the National Primary School Leaving Examinations. For him, there is no question of Ebola stopping their studies – his students must get into secondary school.

Along with the children in his class, he washes his hands before entering the classroom. “I remind my students every day so that the epidemic does not spread here,” says Romain. “I must set an example for my students so that they apply the advice – wash hands, don’t shake hands, and keep your distance from people.”

Romain incorporates the messages about the Ebola virus into his teaching. During French class, the text the students read will be about Ebola, and during the health or ethics class, the emphasis is equally put on Ebola. Quickly, the students assimilate the messages by transforming them into songs, slogans, recitations, poems and plays. Behind all of these activities is one aim: making prevention a habit for all.