Combatting Rumors About Ebola: SMS Done Right

When misinformation is a case of life or death, aid workers and communities need an ear to the ground

Three girls look at a poster with information about Ebola. A little boy sits behind them.
The Ebola epidemic has been driven by misinformation and rumors. (Credit: Children reading a poster with Ebola prevention messages. Liberia, 2015 by UNICEF/CC) 

This story originally ran in Medium.

The rumor began with a fever. On March 4th, in a public school in rural northern Liberia on the border with Guinea, a child was diagnosed with a high fever. Following protocol in a region where Ebola cases remain a concern, the school called an ambulance to take the child for treatment. But when the ambulance arrived, students began to panic and flee the campus. Parents began to frantically connect by phone and a rumor quickly spread to the larger town of Sanniquellie, 35 km to the south.

The rumor?

“People are vaccinating children in schools and the vaccinated children are then taken by ambulance and hospitalized.”

Within the hour, parents throughout the region were rushing to local schools and removing their children.

Luckily, in this case the rumor was short-lived. Information about the panic was quickly communicated to local radio stations who set the record straight, calming the anxious population. The broadcasts were followed up by local health teams who made school visits. The rumor was stopped before it reached the highly populated Ganta school system, another 35 km south of Sanniquellie.

Replicating this system to refute future rumors is not so simple. Rumors spread quickly and generally through word of mouth, SMS and social media — channels that are hard to track and monitor. Rumors that start far from the capital, where most aid organizations are based, can grow out of control very quickly.

Rumors can kill

What is now clear to healthcare organizations working on the ground in West Africa is that the Ebola epidemic has been driven as much by misinformation and rumors as by weaknesses in the health system. It is common sense that information is a critical element in combatting disease, particularly when contagion from common social practices, such as bathing the corpses of the deceased, were central to so much of the early spread of the disease. But in the context of a massive disease outbreak, when hundreds of international organizations and billions of dollars flood into a region whose fragile infrastructure has been damaged by years of civil war, information dissemination becomes a powerful challenge.

In the Ebola outbreak, the international community quickly created a series of wide-scale social behavior change communication campaigns, a typical approach in humanitarian aid. The result was that local populations were bombarded with massive but poorly-coordinated blasts of messaging on billboards, in print, on radio and TV, through health outreach workers and community organizations, via SMS and call-in hotlines.

A preliminary assessment conducted by Internews in November 2014 found more than 300 different types of social mobilization or messaging systems in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

One thing that was routinely missed in this chaotic information environment was that one size does not fit all.

Local beliefs and attitudes were in some cases a serious impediment to people acting on the messages. Some communities believed, for example, that the bleach sprayed by health workers to sanitize the environment was the government spraying the virus and spreading disease. In other cases, people believed the disease was the result of black magic. In this context, misinformation can spread quickly and along with it, infection and death.

Even for those communities where generic messaging was absorbed, or where there is hope that Ebola is contained, significant challenges remain. People need ongoing information about Ebola prevention and preparedness for future epidemics. They are hungry to hear about situations on the borders and the resumption of trade and commerce. Many parents are fearful of sending their children to schools that were once used as Ebola holding centers and are resisting regular vaccination schedules for measles or polio because they fear Ebola vaccinations.

”DeySay” SMS

In this complex environment, aid workers are grappling with how to get a better handle on rumors, and how to refute them quickly. In partnership with the Liberian National Red Cross Society, UNICEF and Project Concern International, Internews is developing a simple but critical new tool. DeySay SMS (“Dey Say” refers to how people speak about rumors in Liberian English), will detect and manage rumors in as close to real-time as possible.

DeySay begins with an SMS short code, provided by UNICEF free of charge to hundreds of health workers, NGOs and volunteers on the ground throughout Liberia. When anyone connected to the system becomes aware of a rumor, they text it via the short code to a central coordination hub in Monrovia.

DeySay System

The information is then collected, analyzed for trends, and disseminated to local media partners in the field with details about the rumor so they can stop its spread. Once the system is fully functional, aid workers and social mobilizers in the relevant regions will be put on alert so they can go door-to-door to calm anxieties and correct misinformation.

In conjunction with the rapid response system, DeySay also produces aweekly newsletter for local media throughout the country and partners on the ground. The newsletter highlights trends in rumors and their geographic locations, and helps identify the most critical rumors at any given time. The newsletter also offers insights for local media into information gaps and challenges around Ebola and health reporting.

DeySay SMS offers both rapid response to rumors and, over time, will collect and house valuable data that can be analyzed and used to train media and health workers so they can be more prepared the next time the region experiences a crisis. Knowing which areas are prone to rumors, where the pockets of resistance are and how to truly communicate in ways that people can understand is critical not only for combating epidemics but for creating a healthy recovery.

The DeySay project is an Internews project in collaboration with UNICEF,Liberian National Red Cross Society and Project Concern International. The project is funded by USAID under the Health Communication Capacity Collaborative (HC3) project. Anahi Ayala Iacucci is Internews Country Director in Liberia.

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