Our Perspectives

Ebola: How the rumour mill can churn out fact instead of fiction


 Ebola community messengerA resident of Waterloo, an Ebola virus hotspot, gets first hand prevention information from one UNDP-supported community volunteer. Photo: H. Uddin/UNDP Sierra Leone

Ebola spreads fast and rumours even faster. In a crisis where information means the difference between life and death, the rumour mill is not helping to end the outbreak.

Everyone has a theory about Ebola; some claim they know how to stop it, most claim to know where it came from. Most of the theories contradict reality and serve as a roadblock to eradicating Ebola, like false cures or where donor money is spent. Sierra Leone is a story-telling society, but word of mouth is the best form of communications, particularly when more than 60% of adults are illiterate.

In Sierra Leone, secret societies, tacit ethical codes and centuries-long traditions rule the roost. So when some people speak, the country listens.  

With this rumour mill comes potential. We, and other UN agencies, NGOs, the Government of Sierra Leone and other stakeholders have made messaging the core of our work. Whether it’s going door-to-door, erecting giant billboards or handing out flyers, getting the right message to everyone is not just about exposure, it’s about trust.

Our Ebola community messengers go through their own communities, and speak face-to-face, ensuring they are heard loud and clear. If not, their blue overalls with 117, the Ebola emergency number, emblazoned on the back, help remind neighbours of what to do when they suspect Ebola.

So far, 500 volunteers under the Disaster Management Department of the Office for National Security, go door-to-door in their own communities to disseminate Ebola-prevention messages. This programme, which we fund through our core resources, is a little different than other sensitisation programmes as it employs grassroots level advocacy at its core.

With enlisting community leaders and trusted residents, messages can get out, questions can be asked, and answers quickly given.

Accurate word of mouth is often not possible in some of the more remote villages. That’s why radio and messaging systems like WhatsApp are so important.

Tapping into the rumour mill through traditional channels, like engaging cultural figures of authority who may not always be the first called to the frontlines, is one way to feed the right messages. If we can get the right messages into the right hands, the rumour mill can be one of fact instead of fiction.

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