Five years into one of the most severe humanitarian crises in the world, South Sudan is faced with yet another challenge: Ebola. With a healthcare system in ruins, the country—which shares a long and porous border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—needs to prepare for the worst. Medical interventions, however effective, won’t be enough. The key to preparing for one of the world’s deadliest viruses might instead lie in something else: communities.
Last month, the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the DRC passed its one-year mark—an anniversary with little cause for celebration. Despite the successful introduction of an experimental vaccine just one week after the outbreak was declared, the aggressive hemorrhagic fever has claimed more than 2,100 lives, making it one of the deadliest outbreaks known to man, second only to the 2013–2016 West Africa epidemic.
On 17 July this year, following a confirmed case in Goma—a commercial hub in the DRC located on the border with Rwanda that is home to 2 million people— the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. To make matters worse, four cases later crossed into Uganda, suggesting that a cross-border epidemic can’t be ruled out.
Ebola: One of many hardships in South Sudan
The risk of Ebola is just one of many challenges facing South Sudan—a young nation that shares a 444-mile-long border with the DRC and is struggling to rebuild after five years of brutal civil war. The conflict has wreaked havoc on the country’s healthcare system, leaving the country vulnerable to highly infectious diseases like Ebola. Weak healthcare systems lead to delays in detection and, inevitably, risk hampering potentially life-saving interventions. In this context, a large-scale disaster becomes less hard to imagine, if—or, as some believe, ‘when’—Ebola crosses into South Sudan.
Indeed, as recently as June, an Ebola case was reported in Ariwara, a Congolese town about 70 kilometers from the border with South Sudan. Local roads between the two countries are important for trade and frequently used by those seeking medical attention or visiting relatives.
To support South Sudanese communities preparing for Ebola, International Medical Corps is supporting the South Sudan Ministry of Health as it prepares for a potential outbreak through a novel means: entertainment. Along with weekly Ebola-themed shows on the radio, the organization is throwing ‘Ebola Preparedness’-themed street parties in South Sudan’s capital, Juba.
A new take on community outreach and engagement
The project uses dancing and music to grasp people’s attention, often leading curious bystanders to join the festivities. The organizers—stage performers and aid workers—then utilize the limelight to spread messages central to disease prevention and control, including the importance of good hygiene, how the disease is spread, what to do if a person identifies someone who may have been exposed, and how to safely handle and bury the body of someone who has died from the virus.
As the event goes on, community members start to ask questions about Ebola and a discussion begins to take form, often followed by people requesting more information about how to prepare for the virus.
Is the approach working?
Though it takes time to evaluate outreach and engagement efforts, we’re already seeing some of the benefits. For instance, hand-washing stations in the same areas as the shows are used more than before the events. In addition, the number of Ebola alerts to a toll-free telephone number have increased.
Of course, community outreach and engagement by themselves won’t be enough to spare the war-weary people of South Sudan from Ebola. These efforts must be paired with robust health interventions, such as isolation units, increasing infection and prevention control at existing health facilities, and improving South Sudan’s laboratory capacity. To be truly effective, it’s essential that the two efforts—to build understanding as well as clinical capacity—complement each other.