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Efforts to control the outbreak of Ebola in Africa have grown so desperate that public health officials are turning into music producers. The “Ebola Rap”, now trending on Liberian radio, is performed by locally famous hip-hop singers and underwritten by the ministry of health and others, including Unicef.
And the strategy is not necessarily desperate, though the situation may be. One of the greatest challenges in fighting the worst outbreak on record of one of the world's deadliest diseases is communication - with patients, their families and the public at large.
In this context the “Ebola Rap” is a brilliant and catchy stroke. The song contains the gritty details about how Ebola is spread (“in direct contact with the blood, saliva, urine, stool, sweat, semen of an infected person or infected animal”) and how to respond to symptoms (“go to the hospital”). It's one of a handful of songs, in various styles, now helping fill one of the greatest needs in areas where the epidemic is raging: to communicate to the public that “Ebola is real” (another line from the song) and how to prevent and treat it.
While Americans and Europeans fret over the unlikely possibility that Ebola will invade their shores, medical workers in Africa can see all too clearly how it spreads. In Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, weak health-care systems are struggling not only to treat thousands of patients, but also to deal with a general population understandably wary of outside medical practices.
Where medical services are so scarce there are only one or two doctors for every 100 000 people, it has been impossible to keep track of all the contacts of every Ebola patient. (In an ideal world, they would be individually monitored for 21 days.) And people have become frightened of both the disease and its treatment, which entails isolation wards separated from loved ones for several weeks. People with symptoms flee care centres, or hide in their communities, and many residents of quarantined urban neighbourhoods try desperately to escape.
Getting Ebola under control will require working with, rather than against, local customs and ways of thinking about medical care. The “Ebola Rap” is part of a smart overall strategy of using anthropology to contain the outbreak.
“Call in the anthropologists” may sound like a weak response to a powerful killer. Yet it's crucial that non-native health officials understand local resistance. In the case of this outbreak, it means allowing victims' families to see and understand how their loved ones are being treated, even after death. In Guinea, for example, 60 percent of Ebola cases have been linked to traditional burials.
Where people are being forcibly quarantined, public health officials have a special obligation to ensure that everyone inside has access to health care and counselling - not to mention food, water and services - and protection from exposure to the virus. And they are trying. The United Nations World Food Programme is preparing to feed a million people in restricted areas of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Containing Ebola will take months. But the virus can be brought to heel if communication can be improved. Any effort that helps the cause - including a rap song - is therefore worthwhile.