Rapid real-time advice and guidelines during the Ebola crisis increased the effectiveness of medical and humanitarian responses, saving lives and reducing the spread of the disease.

Impacts

  • The Ebola Response Anthropology Platform (ERAP), accessed by more than 16,000 users, delivered online and face-to-face advice to policymakers and practitioners on identifying and diagnosing cases, managing death and funerals, caring for the sick, improving communications and community engagement.
  • ERAP shaped UK and international strategy; its members formed a social science sub-group of the UK Government Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), advising the Government's Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientist, and presenting evidence to three UK Parliamentary Inquiries on Ebola. ERAP members joined three core World Health Organisation committees and produced more than 40 briefings for the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence, Christian Aid and others.
  • ERAP directly shaped response activities in Sierra Leone, including implementation of locally appropriate Community Care Centres, safe burials, social mobilisation approaches and vaccine trials, and pre-departure training for 362 clinical personnel on engaging effectively with socio-cultural practices.

"Many of our witnesses emphasised that establishing the Ebola Anthropology and Social Science sub-Group of SAGE, and ensuring that the membership of SAGE included social scientists, were extremely important in controlling the outbreak." (Science and Technology Committee report: Science in emergencies - UK lessons from Ebola inquiry)

About the research

In the early days of the Ebola crisis, some humanitarian response teams found themselves under attack from the people they were trying to help. "Vehicles were stoned, health facilities attacked and ditches dug across roads to keep health workers out of villages due to fears that they were part of some plot to spread the disease," explains Professor Melissa Leach.

Within weeks of the World Health Organisation declaring Ebola a public health emergency of international concern in August 2014, Professor Leach and a team of anthropologists set up the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform (ERAP) website as a portal for live information and dialogue. Drawing on three decades' worth of research experience in the border region of Sierra Leone-Guinea-Liberia, they recognised the need to bring communities on board.

"Public health responses were faltering, often for social and cultural reasons," Professor Leach points out. "We were able to feed social science into the emergency responses, helping to make them more effective."

For example, while aid workers knew that funerals were a key transmission route for Ebola with kin coming from far afield to take part in burial rituals, they were making little headway in preventing this practice, and communities often found their interventions offensive. ERAP recognised the social significance of burial attendance, and provided guidance on how to work with local communities to refine burial protocols – interacting with the right local leaders, substituting physical for non-physical rituals, and gaining agreement to delay some traditional visits until after the crisis.

Based on their success in providing rapid, social evidence-based advice to policy and practice, the ERAP team is currently working with a range of organisations including UNICEF and the Wellcome Trust to develop the model for wider emergency preparedness and response.