Dr Ameyo Stella Adadevoh…RIP

How social media helped Nigerians win war against ebola

With over 131 million active lines and 67 million mobile Internet subscribers, Nigerians engaged the social media to spread information which helped contain the Ebola Virus Disease, writes DAYO OKETOLA

Being the worst Ebola Virus Disease outbreak ever, the deadly virus has continued to outpace financial and health resources available to fight its spread. With thousands of households badly ravaged and children orphaned across West Africa, the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a global emergency with over 16,000 infected people and nearly 7,000 deaths.

As of December 13, 2014, Liberia has recorded 3,290 Ebola deaths; Sierra Leone, 2,033; Guinea, 1,518; Mali, six; and Senegal, one. While Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are the three hardest-hit countries with many deaths, only seven people died in Nigeria.

EVD was imported into Nigeria on July 20, 2014 by Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-born American diplomat who flew in from Lome, in transit to a conference in Calabar the Cross River State capital.

The Lagos State Government and the Federal Ministry of Health were quick to disseminate messages urging people to avoid physical contact, to wash their hands frequently, and avoid handshakes and hugs, among other tips. The Federal Ministry of Health immediately put up a dedicated EVD page on its website which contained fact sheets in English and downloadable fliers in Pidgin, Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo languages.

Nigerians were enlightened on the symptoms of Ebola which typically include weakness, fever, aches, diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pain.

Amid all of these, former Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, Lagos Governor Babatunde Fashola and the Deputy Incident Manager, Ebola Virus Isolation Centre in Yaba, Lagos, Dr. Kayode Oguntimehin, among others, kept reassuring Nigerians that the country had what it takes to deal with the threat of the virus.

The response to momentous anti-Ebola sensitisation among Nigerians was expectedly overwhelming: hand sanitisers became a must-have by individuals and corporate organisations. Some banks did not just stop at sensitisation; they provided their workers with hand gloves. Churches and mosques also joined the crusade and thermal thermometers for measuring body temperature became a critical piece of equipment in offices and other public places such as airports, shopping malls and land borders, among others.

Health worker burn used protection gear at the NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) center in Conakry on September 13, 2014. Photo: AFP

At the end, the total number of confirmed EVD cases in Nigeria as of Monday, September 8, 2014, stood at 19, with 15 in Lagos and four in Port Harcourt. The total number of deaths from the virus as of Tuesday, September 9, 2014, stood at seven.

Having succeeded in taming the raging disease, the WHO on October 20, 2014, declared Nigeria as officially free of Ebola transmission 42 days after the “last day that any person in the country had contact with a confirmed or probable Ebola case.”

“Today, 20 October, Nigeria reached that 42-day mark and is now considered free of Ebola transmission,” the WHO said in a statement signed by Communications Officer, Fadéla Chaib. While commending the Nigerian Government’s strong leadership and effective coordination of the response that included the rapid establishment of an Emergency Operations Centre, the WHO acknowledged that “strong public awareness campaigns, teamed with early engagement of traditional, religious and community leaders, also played a key role in successful containment of this outbreak.”

To this end, Nigeria’s Minister of Communications Technology, Dr. Omobola Johnson, reasoned that the social media also played a major role in the anti-Ebola campaign. According to her, the use of a combination of an Android app, Facebook and Twitter were instrumental in Nigeria’s fight to contain the EVD.

Johnson, who spoke to ministers and senior officials from across the globe at the International Telecommunications Union 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-14) in Busan, Republic of Korea, explained that the phone app helped in reducing reporting times of infections by 75 per cent.

She said that test results were scanned to tablets and uploaded to emergency databases and field teams got text message alerts on their phones informing them of the results.

This uncommon success rate was largely attributed to the prompt and coordinated response by the Lagos State Government and the Federal Ministry of Health.

The Assistant Administrator for Global Health, United States Agency for International Development, Dr. Ariel Pablos-Méndez, said, “With the increasing use and decreasing cost of mobile phones, leveraging mobile phone technology to accelerate access to health information and services is a game changer.”

With a mobile subscription base of over 131 million active mobile lines out of Nigeria’s 170 million population and 67 million mobile Internet subscription as of June 2014, millions of Nigerians besieged social media sites such as Twitter, You Tube, and Google+, among others, on their mobile phones to learn about the deadly disease. The country’s over 11 million people on Facebook were not left out.

Thus, this demonstrated Pablos-Méndez’s opinion that mobile phone technology could accelerate access to health information as more Nigerians engaged mobile messaging apps such as WhatsApp, BlackBerry Messenger, WeChat, PalmChat, as well as Bulk SMS to spread information about how to avoid being infected with the disease.

This, according to experts, is a beautiful demonstration of the explosion in the use of new media and technology to spread information in Nigeria.

The team of volunteers behind the popular Twitter hashtag, #EbolaAlert, engaged Nigerians consistently during the period the viral disease raged in the country.

EbolaAlert is an evidence-driven group of volunteer professionals working on EVD interventions. It was created by doctors but also involved active participation of other professionals. Partners include the Federal Ministry of Health, Lagos State, WHO, UNICEF, CDC, and Doctors without Borders.

Various online chat sessions such as #StopEbola and #EbolaChat were initiated to keep Twitter users abreast of the new developments regarding the viral disease. Nigerians also used hashtags such as #Ebola, #EbolaFacts and #EradicateEbola to figure out what it was and how they could protect themselves.

The media aide to the former Minister of Health, Dan Nwomeh, also signed up on Twitter during the Ebola outbreak in the country. The health minister’s media aide, who began tweeting on August 18, gave regular updates of recorded cases of the viral disease while the outbreak lasted. He also made use of the social media platforms to curate inquiries from the public for official notification and response from the Minister of Health, while also deploying it as a tool for debunking rumours and half truths like the infamous “salt water bath” cure for Ebola.

Visitors (R) are decontaminated by health workers at Island Hospital as they arrive to deliver food to relatives suffering from the Ebola virus in Monrovia, Liberia on September 26, 2014. Photo: AFP

The Chairperson, Women in Technology in Nigeria, Mrs. Martha Omoekpen Alade, in an interview with our correspondent, agreed with the Minister of Communications Technology that the social media played a significant role in Nigeria’s containment of the Ebola virus.

She said, “The social media played a role in the fight against Ebola in Nigeria, a huge role indeed. Nigerians spend a lot of time on Facebook daily, and this became one of the most effective Ebola alert tools.

“Every second a Nigerian checked his or her Facebook wall, Ebola alert popped up. Facebook, which provides a good platform to post pictures and videos, was a very powerful avenue to sensitise the public visually. YouTube videos were also helpful.”

Copyright PUNCH.

to be continued next post

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