Risk communication

Social science research projects for the Ebola response in the DRC and neighbouring countries

Infectious disease outbreaks impact the lives of people, families and communities. Local communities are experts in what works in their contexts. Thus, partnering with them is key to stopping the spread of disease and saving lives.

Social science research offers valuable insights into the experience of communities affected by an outbreak and the settings where they live. Social science insights inform the strategies used to control the spread of infection and to help communities in affected areas to take more ownership over the outbreak response.

In response to the Ebola outbreak in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), WHO and partners have conducted multiple social science investigations in the affected areas and neighbouring countries. Many of these investigations are ongoing.

Thus far, social science research has aimed at better understanding the culture, practices and social experience of the communities affected by Ebola. Studies have addressed many concerns, from how to better include local leaders, to the role of cultural and environmental factors in improving the Ebola response and resilience. Other studies have used information on migration patterns to predict the spread of the disease and to conduct risk assessments for specific areas near outbreak ‘hotspots’. Findings from this research are reported locally at routine meetings with field teams. Key findings are also periodically summarized in high-level briefing documents, which are then circulated among partners.

GOARN-Research (social science) and the EU-funded social sciences network SONAR-Global have developed a map to track social science research conducted for the current Ebola response in DRC, as well as in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. The map aims to give policymakers, responders, and funders an overview of what kinds of social sciences research are being done, where, and by whom. This initiative should also encourage the use of research insights to inform the response strategy.

To date, most social science research initiatives (completed and ongoing) have been done in North Kivu (Beni, Butembo, Katwa, Lubero, Bunia, Kayna, Masereka, Vuhovi and Mabalako), some of the areas most affected by the current Ebola outbreak. Many of these projects have sought to investigate and address opposition to the Ebola outbreak response, for example, through identifying influential local leaders (traditional healers, religious leaders, politicians, etc). Other projects have sought to understand perceptions of the Ebola disease and the outbreak response in North Kivu, examining specific beliefs and rumours about Ebola and health-seeking behaviours across different groups, including parents or lactating and pregnant women. Some others have sought to understand existing and historical relations between two of the most important religious communities, and how these have played a role in care seeking behaviours and the use of Ebola Treatment Centers by fellowships. Knowledge, attitude and practice (KAP) surveys have also been conducted to provide a cross-sectional view of local understandings regarding aspects of the Ebola response, including about the disease itself, its transmission, prevention activities, about vaccination and about the novel therapeutics currently available.

Longer-term social science research initiatives have also been identified. For example, a project aimed at understanding the social, cultural and environmental factors contributing to Ebola outbreaks and a project aimed at addressing limited literacy populations' abilities to navigate participation in research during epidemics. These studies promise to offer valuable insights for future outbreaks.

Social science research activities are also being conducted in neighbouring countries at risk of cross-border spread of the current outbreak. In Uganda, risk assessment research has been done to monitor disease spread by mapping human mobility patterns. Alongside this approach, rapid response research (involving participant observation, key informant interviews and focus group discussions), is being used to understand the social, cultural context of health-seeking and preventive behaviours that could impact EVD preparedness in high-risk districts. A gap analysis tool for appropriate demand-side preparedness for reactive Ebola vaccine deployment in Uganda is also in development.

It is vital that insights produced through these social science activities can be rapidly shared with multiple actors in the Ebola response. Much of this feedback happens locally through routine meetings among field teams. In addition, key findings are synthesised into briefing documents that are then circulated widely among partners.

Acknowledgements: SoNAR-Global provided the funding for the map development. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 825671.

This page links all WHO technical and general information on risk communication.

This page links all WHO technical and general information on Ebola Virus Disease.

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