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Short on doctors, tech aids Liberia in outbreak.

There is little doubt Liberia lacked the medical staff to confront the Ebola outbreak. With only 200 doctors in a country of 4 million, there is only one physician per 20,000 people. That’s left the country scrambling for alternative ways to prevent the spread of a disease that has already killed 2,400. Yet perhaps surprisingly in a country where two-thirds of the population is subsistence farmers, technology is aiding in the fight.

Facebook and other social media sites have been a key means of spreading information about the disease, says Boakai Fofana, an editor for AllAfrica.com based in the capital Monrovia. “You can know the situation; what is happening in the different parts of the country,” Fofana says. “[Social media] was very useful when the disease was killing a lot of people. People were able to know what was happening in the areas they were living before the media found out.”

UNICEF’s @EbolaAlert Twitter feed has gained 76,000 followers, and its #StopEbola campaign online has sought to discredit myths about the disease—such as that it is caused by witchcraft or can be cured by home remedies.

Mark Zuckerberg

FILE – In this April 30, 2014 file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at the f8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are donating $25 million to the CDC Foundation to help address the Ebola epidemic, the foundation said Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. Photo credit: AP Photo/Ben Margot, File

Other tools have proven useful as well. In Nigeria, which successfully eradicated an outbreak of the disease in October, satellite GPS systems used in polio eradication were employed to track contacts of those infected. Flowminder, a Swedish organization, is using anonymized data on mobile phone movements to track possible routes of infection in West Africa.

There are additional examples of new technologies being used to fight the disease:

  • UNICEF and the aid group IntraHealth International have worked to develop a text-message-based communication system for health workers in the Ebola hit areas. The system allows for broadcast messaging to health workers in remote areas, immediate reporting of outbreaks and improved coordination between workers in the field.
  • UNICEF Innovation has developed a text-messaged based service called U-report that allows the aid group to send text messages to children with basic mobile phones with information about the disease. Children can also send questions and receive responses. UNICEF says previous versions that focused on HIV awareness have been used by an estimated 390,000 users in Zambia, Uganda and Nigeria.
  • Though mobile Internet penetration rates are low in many parts of West Africa, some groups are pushing ahead with smartphone apps to spread information. The ‘About Ebola’ app, available from Google’s online store, provides information about transmission and how to spot symptoms of Ebola in the West African languages of Jola, Krio and Wolof. The BBC’s World Service has launched an app for the messaging service WhatsApp that publishes public health messages up to three times daily in French and English. The group worked with teenage girls from Monrovia’s Westpoint neighborhood to translate its messages into local English dialect and slang used by teenagers. For example the question “Are you aware of the Ebola disease” becomes “do pple no abt Ebola” and “what has changed the most in your community because of Ebola” is translated as “wat bother U d most abt Ebola.”

 

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