When Ebola appeared in Lofa County in rural Liberia last spring, the disease proved devastating. Whole families were wiped out as the virus ravaged villages. Hundreds of new cases appeared every week and hospitals and health centres buckled under the strain, leaving the sick to die in their homes or on the sides of roads.
By summer, Lofa County was the epicentre of the largest Ebola outbreak ever recorded. With the Liberian government struggling to respond and international aid just beginning to arrive, the International Rescue Committee - which has worked in Lofa County for nearly 20 years - turned to the local community to help curb the disease’s spread.
In addition to providing medical supplies, protective equipment and training to local health workers, the IRC joined with community leaders to educate people about Ebola and Ebola prevention.
Alpha Tamba, a physician assistant from the village of Gbandu, joined the effort through a local IRC partner organisation, Pentecostal Mission Unlimited–Liberia. Travelling to remote villages, and speaking in the local language, Tamba addressed deadly rumours about Ebola, including that it was being spread by the government or aid groups.
Tamba emphasised that people were not powerless to stop Ebola, that measures such as careful hand-washing and avoiding contact with the dead were extremely effective.
Tamba initially encountered resistance. On one occasion he was beaten and driven out of a village. But as more people became sick, his message began to be heard. Back in Gbandu, Tamba was welcomed by family and friends.
I told them, you can’t rely on me to save you. Now that you believe that Ebola exists, what can you do to prevent bringing it to our town?”
The villagers met and decided to take action.
Women would ensure that traders would not travel to Guinea. Elders would restrict outsiders, other than health workers, from visiting the village. Young men announced they would forswear social activities and avoid bars in nearby towns until the outbreak had passed.
Ebola did not come to Gbandu. And community-based Ebola education and prevention efforts were expanded throughout Lofa County and became critical in efforts across Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Since November 2014, Lofa County has not recorded a single Ebola case. Experts credit community effort, along with international assistance and better treatment facilities, for dramatically slowing the epidemic in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
“Community leadership has been key,” says Dr. Emmanuel d’Harcourt, IRC senior health director. “People now know they can beat this virus. And while the fight is not over, they believe eradication of Ebola is within sight.”