It’s not over yet…but Tostan’s awareness and education initiatives are helping stabilize the situation in West Africa.

This past March marked one year since the beginning of the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, mainly concentrated in West Africa. While news of Ebola is gradually fading from the spotlight in many Western countries, the battle to curb the spread of the disease is still ongoing in West Africa.  Despite massive global efforts to stop the transmission of the disease, the epidemic in West Africa is not over yet.

New cases of Ebola are slowing, but according to this article by Julia Belluz on Vox Media, “getting to zero will require more than pouring dollars and doctors into the region — it’ll involve changing beliefs and behaviors in the furthest corners of West Africa.”

If there’s one area where Tostan excels, it’s behavioral change. As a non-profit education organization that implements a human rights-based program—promoting, among other things, the human right to health—Tostan takes seriously its role in ending the spread of Ebola in its partner communities. Since the beginning of the Ebola epidemic last year, efforts in the six West African countries where Tostan works—Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, The Gambia, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau—have contributed to broader awareness, education, and Ebola prevention. 

Guinea has unquestionably been the country where Tostan works which has been hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic, and the Tostan Guinea team has been dedicated in their response to communities in need.  With the financial support of UNICEF, Tostan Guinea launched an awareness raising program on Ebola in conjunction with the National Policy for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights and Welfare of Children in Guinea. Part of these efforts included health training in national languages for 952 members of Guinea’s Local Committee for Children and Family (CLEF) who then brought health awareness to 58 neighboring districts.

Hygiene kits delivered to 40 communities in the Faranah region of Guinea 

Through the Generational Change in Three Years Project, Tostan included new educational sessions on Ebola into the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) and also provided 40 special hygiene kits to communities in the Faranah region of Guinea. The hygiene kits include water buckets with faucets to encourage hand washing and chlorine for water purification. Hand washing stations were also put in place in all of Tostan’s Guinea offices.

Encouraging the simple act of hand washing has been an important strategy in curbing the spread of Ebola.  “In our communities, when we wash our hands it is to eat,” says Mouctar Oulare, National Coordinator of Tostan Guinea. “Since our Ebola prevention measures now require routine hand washing in the home and in public places like schools, churches, and offices, every time people wash their hands, they ask where the food is in jest!”

Across all six countries, local media has been an instrumental tool in Tostan’s efforts to raise awareness about Ebola prevention. In The Gambia, for example, Tostan’s popular radio shows frequently featured discussions about the signs and symptoms of Ebola, and invited Regional Health Management Teams to speak about preventative measures. Intervillage meetings have also provided a prime forum for sharing Ebola-related information and raising awareness on the importance of preventative practices. 

“To cope with the virulence of Ebola, Guinean authorities declared a national health emergency, which has led to a ban on large group gatherings and the transport of bodies,” said Oulare. “These measures, added to the strong mobilization of collaborating partners like Tostan, have helped get the epidemic under control. Apart from a few resistant areas in lower Guinea, there are currently no new infections. The possibility of an Ebola vaccine has also brought hope that the disease can be cured.”

But even though the disease seems to be slowing, the work in West Africa is far from over. Rebuilding, and continuing to maintain vigilance and awareness, are high priorities for Tostan’s national offices.

At the request of UNICEF, for example, Tostan Guinea has submitted a proposal that would provide psychological and social support for children directly affected by Ebola, with a particular emphasis on orphans, in the Faranah region of Guinea. The project would reach approximately 5,000 children in 13 districts.

Ebola warning sign at an intervillage meeting on the Senegambia border, translated into four languages.

Tostan has also developed an Ebola prevention guide to add to the CEP. The first sessions address traditional perceptions and beliefs about disease in general, along with a review of germ transmission and how infectious disease can be prevented. The following session is a flip chart presentation currently under development by UNICEF, which provides a history of the recent Ebola outbreak and the most current information available on the disease as well as symptoms and prevention.  The last sessions examine social norms that contribute to the spread of the disease—for example, shaking hands in greeting. Participants reflect on alternative ways to show respect to others they meet; for example, by clasping both hands together without touching the other person’s hands to avoid the transmission of germs. The participants then spread this new way of greeting to others in the community and on radio broadcasts in order for it to become a universally accepted practice.   

This training has been launched in the hardest-hit areas of Guinea, and is slated to become an integral part of the CEP in all six West African countries. Tostan’s strategy of organized diffusion — equipping the Community Management Committee (CMC) members to reach out to surrounding communities — means that over 4,000 communities across West Africa will ultimately be impacted by this training. In addition, all of Tostan’s Ebola-related materials will be made available to other organizations working in epidemic zones, including those in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Tostan’s Chief Executive Officer, Molly Melching, noted that Tostan’s Ebola-related initiatives over the past year have only been possible through communities, staff, and partners coming together to find solutions during a very difficult year. This was especially true in the case of donors. “When projects are already in place and budgets are already made, it can be a real challenge to move forward when something so challenging comes up,” she said. “You need to coordinate resources in a different way.”

She noted in particular the flexibility and adaptability of Tostan’s partners, like UNICEF and the Leadership Circle of Tostan’s Generational Change in Three Years campaign. She also stressed that a Tostan fundraising campaign last fall on Crowdrise, supported by Skoll Foundation and hundreds of individual donors, allowed the organization to both address urgent immediate needs while keeping an eye on long-term prevention. “I hope all of the people who supported this Ebola campaign, and also our broader year-end campaign, know how important their contributions are,” she said. “By getting involved at that moment, people told us that they believed in Tostan’s approach and were standing with us. When you’re faced with tough realities, this kind of moral support cannot be overstated.”