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In Nigeria, texting helps to prevent Ebola

Abuja, Nigeria, 13 October, 2014 – When the recent outbreak of Ebola virus was first reported in Nigeria, Nne Orji was one of many Nigerians…

Abuja, Nigeria, 13 October, 2014 – When the recent outbreak of Ebola virus was first reported in Nigeria, Nne Orji was one of many Nigerians who took baths in saltwater, believing that it would help keep her safe from the disease. She even drank from the salt solution – a mythical cure that has cost the lives of a number of people.
She was especially concerned that her profession as an immigration officer put her at risk, because of contact with travellers from other countries.
She was determined to do what it takes to protect herself, but she didn’t have good information about what to do. Along with the widespread fear of the disease, there were rampant rumours about how it could be caught – and magical ways to prevent it. Nne was just one of many who believed them.
That all changed when her mobile phone beeped with a text message from her elder sister. Several beeps later, Nne had the information she needed to help protect herself against Ebola. And then she started sharing the messages with colleagues.
The messages were a result of U-Report, a text-based communication platform developed by UNICEF and deployed as part of the social mobilization strategy against Ebola. It uses the cascading power of a single ‘U-reporter’ sharing a message with multiple recipients, who in turn pass it on to others.
Citizen engagement
UNICEF launched U-Report in Nigeria in April this year. Using Short Message Service (SMS), it allows individual subscribers to ask questions about issues, to get real time answers and to share information with other U-reporters across the country. By giving people a new and effective platform for communicaiton, it is intended to strengthen community-led development, citizen engagement and behavioural change.
The outbreak of Ebola saw Nigerians urgently seeking information on how to prevent the disease. The use of salt and water to cure the disease was a deadly hoax spread through social media. U-Report made it quicker for people to share and receive information, even in hard-to-reach areas where other methods of social mobilization and outreach are less effective. In the month after the outbreak, subscribers increased from 19,000 to 63,000. Many people were asking for and contributing information on Ebola – causes, symptoms, treatment and how to prevent it – as well as sharing with non U-reporters.
Ms. Orji’s sister, Oruoma Odom, a journalism teacher, became a U-reporter in May this year at a UNICEF training for journalists and journalism teachers. “What I do is send out the messages whenever I receive them to my brothers and sisters in the countryside,” she says. “My sister who is an immigration officer was most grateful, because she did not have any information about Ebola and being an immigration officer she felt especially at risk being, as it were, the first contact with incoming visitors to Nigeria.”
Educating the public about Ebola transmission and prevention has been a critical part of the effort to contain the outbreak in Nigeria. In addition to house-to-house campaigns and other social mobilization activities, UNICEF has used the U-Report platform to reach a large segment of the Nigerian population.
Reaching millions
“Within the first 24 hours of the outbreak, our subscribers doubled from 19,000 because of the accuracy of information. Unsolicited responses were replied in real time. Questions, answers and facts from World Health Organization were shared on Twitter and Facebook on the measures to prevent Ebola,” says Aboubacar Kampo, UNICEF Nigeria’s Chief of Health, who oversees U-Report Nigeria.
“People were asking questions like: Does bitter kola cure Ebola? Is Ebola Virus Disease airborne? Does bush meat transmit Ebola? Can it be transmitted via mosquito bites?” Mr. Kampo explains. “These were the questions people were asking, because they want to know, and you cannot blame them.”
In addition to the thousands of U-reporters sharing messages with friends and relatives, major radio and television networks in Nigeria rebroadcast U-Report messages to millions of their audience.
“We must never underestimate the power of the social media. With more than 100 million Nigerians owning a mobile phone today, they can get the right information or ask their question and get real-time response from others as quickly as possible,” says Jean Gough, UNICEF Representation in Nigeria. “This is how to engage the communities and promote necessary social change that people want.”

Geoffrey  Njoku is the Communication Specialist, UNICEF Nigeria.

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