One year on: Using words to end Ebola

Published: 23 March 2015 4:00 CET

By Corinne Ambler, IFRC

One year ago, most of the world had never heard of Ebola virus disease, a deadly haemorrhagic fever with extremely high mortality rates. When the World Health Organization announced on 23 March 2014 that Ebola had become an epidemic, it had already killed 60 people in Guinea and was soon to spread to Liberia.  

Over the past year, the Red Cross Red Crescent has been working to end the outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the countries worst hit by the disease, which has infected almost 25,000 people and killed more than 10,000. Despite a massive worldwide effort to contain it, there are still new cases being reported every week in Guinea and Sierra Leone, and there is still no known vaccine or cure.

At a one-year commemoration in Conakry, Guinea today, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is discussing with partners what has been achieved in the last year, what lessons have been learned, and what the priorities are from here on in.

“We know that using a holistic approach works. Treating the patient, tracing those they’ve been in contact with, conducting safe burials, educating communities on the real facts about Ebola, and asking them to report cases early. Only with all these elements have we been able to eradicate Ebola from previous hotspots,” says Norbert Allale, regional head of IFRC’s Ebola response.

Words Against Ebola

IFRC is using the commemoration to launch Words Against Ebola, a global campaign centered on using the “right words” to help end the disease. The goals of the campaign are to promote knowledge and awareness, alleviate fear, overcome complacency, and garner global support to get to zero cases of Ebola.

IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy says the power of words can repair misconceptions, promote dialogue and overcome resistance in the journey to zero new cases.

“Our words and actions will make a difference. They will pave the last mile back to trust and resilience. Words to break the stigma against healthcare workers and survivors, words to educate communities on prevention, words of solidarity from all over the world  to say to affected people and communities: We won’t let you down and together, we can end Ebola.”

Guinea has proven the most challenging of the three countries in which to fight the disease. Its geographical vastness, isolated communities, lack of phone or internet network, and people’s belief in traditional healers, witchcraft and voodoo have all been factors in spreading fear, disbelief and misinformation.

Even though new cases are being reported every week, some in Guinea still do not believe Ebola is real; others believe the chlorine spray used to disinfect houses and other buildings is actually spreading the virus. Volunteers with the Red Cross Society of Guinea are still being attacked by people who are scared, further hampering their ability to trace those who may have come into contact with an infected person. Unsafe burials continue to take place, risking further spread of the disease.

Aly Badara Kallo, 25, has been volunteering with the Red Cross Society of Guinea since he was 10 years old. He was part of the first team to go into the community when the Ebola outbreak began, and says he did not think his country would still be fighting the disease one year later.

“It was the first time our country had had Ebola. No one imagined it would stay for this long. At the beginning, when I watched videos on the internet of volunteers dying in Congo I got really scared. But I carried on because I also talked to some people from Congo who faced Ebola and overcame it, and it gave me the courage to continue,” he says, even though he faces regular abuse and many people refuse to listen to his messages.

“They even call me when I’m on air on the radio and insult me. The psychosocial support we have received has really helped us because we were trained not to be stopped by the insults. And I keep going because the only thing that can reduce the transmission of Ebola is communication.”

IFRC and National Red Cross Societies in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have achieved much in the last year. They have trained 10,000 volunteers, who have been doing the jobs no one else wants to do – treating patients, conducting safe and dignified burials, tracing and monitoring contacts of Ebola patients, providing psychosocial support to survivors and their families, and educating 4.6 million people with accurate information about the disease.

Recovery plans are being formulated and will be driven and led by the communities, while response teams remain poised to respond to ongoing outbreaks. Each country has different recovery needs but common themes include the rebuilding and strengthening of healthcare systems, agriculture, and food security.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has launched 16 emergency operations in response to the Ebola outbreak. Totalling more than 112 million Swiss francs, the operations are aimed at reaching 39 million people. For more information on Red Cross Ebola operations, visit