Exploring community-based initiatives to improve Ebola virus response and resilience

November 14, 2018
FLICKR / MONUSCO

A critical priority in Ebola virus disease (EVD) research surrounds the complex forces affecting humanitarian and emergency responses to EVD outbreaks. Physical, social, economic, and cultural factors, as well as changes to the physical environment, all play a role in EVD emergence and transmission. Improving our understanding of these interactions is essential to building EVD response capacity to mitigate the impact of the disease.

This project aims to support locally-sensitive response strategies and community-based initiatives to complement international efforts to contain viral transmission, limit the disease’s spread, and reduce the risk of future outbreaks.

The research is funded under the Rapid Research Fund for Ebola Virus Disease Outbreaks. This  CA$1.5 million initiative co-funded by IDRC, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, supports collaborative projects jointly led by teams from Canada and Africa.

The challenge

Humanitarian and emergency responses to outbreaks of highly infectious and dangerous pathogens like Ebola are typically comprised of rapid and top-down deployment of biomedical interventions and strict regulatory and enforcement measures such as medical quarantines, travel restrictions, and government controls on sociocultural practices. Combined with poor local engagement, such responses tend to manifest widespread confusion, fear, misinformation, and civil unrest in local communities.

All of these issues arose during the devastating 2014-2016 EVD outbreak in West Africa. Emergency measures that endeavoured to identify, treat, and prevent cases of Ebola infection were hindered because of their limited awareness of the community’s social norms and lived experiences such as care-seeking needs, caregiving practices, and funerary customs. Collectively, these issues led a number of global health actors to call for greater support and action for socially sustainable, community-informed, and ethically robust research and outbreak control responses during pandemic emergencies.

The project

Led by a joint Canadian-Liberian research team that is supported by additional international researchers and practitioners, this project features strong multidisciplinary expertise in health systems, epidemiology, data science, anthropology, and public health. 

The project will be implemented in three stages. The first stage will focus on applying a social vulnerability analysis; the second will apply “popular” epidemiology in efforts to align expert-lay interactions and understanding; and the third will focus on sharing the generated knowledge with vulnerable communities across Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The impact

Developing a better understanding of the complex social, cultural, and environmental factors involved in responses to highly infectious and dangerous diseases is essential to improving local capacity to contain outbreaks.

This project aims to:

  • Build greater understanding of social and environmental factors as precursors for increased vulnerability to EVD outbreaks in susceptible communities, both at the community and international levels;
  • Better align and leverage expert-lay approaches to, and knowledge of, EVD outbreaks;
  • Improve both theoretical and empirical understandings of the changing contexts of disease transmission and healthcare in the DRC, with applied lessons from the West African EVD outbreak of 2014-2016;
  • Enhance community awareness and knowledge of EVD emergence and transmission risk as related to social and environmental factors amongst local and international participants.