Communication is the first line of defence against health disasters

While African leaders dimed and smiled with Americans during the US- Africa summit, bad news continued to come from the continent. Libya was still burning from all corners while West Africa was struggling to contain what is arguably the worst disease that man is yet to conquer - Ebola.

While African leaders dimed and smiled with Americans during the US- Africa summit, bad news continued to come from the continent. Libya was still burning from all corners while West Africa was struggling to contain what is arguably the worst disease that man is yet to conquer - Ebola.

While Uganda produced some good news for the western world when court nullified the anti-homosexuality legislation this too did not last long on the international news radar. There was news that an oil company owned by Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler had discovered around 3 billion barrels of oil in the DRC side of Lake Albert but this too could not kick Ebola off the news grid.

West Africa remains in the news crosshairs thanks to the Ebola virus that is said to have started from Guinea later spreading to Sierra Leone and Liberia as well as Nigeria. By the time of writing this, the death toll had reached 961 with over 1779 suspected cases. 

Although it is all happening in West Africa, East Africa has not been spared the trouble and pain. One of the first deaths was of a Ugandan doctor. Dr Samuel Mutoro died at the John F. Kennedy Medical Centre in Monrovia, Liberia.

He becomes the third Uganda doctor to die from the disease after Dr. Matthew Lukwiya and Dr Jonah Kule. Dr Lukwiya died in 2000 during the first outbreak of Ebola in northern Uganda while Dr Kule died in 2007 during the second outbreak of the disease in Uganda.

The disease tends to spread fast if the information flow is slow and trusted. In West Africa for example, some believe it is a curse from God for human beings turning to homosexuality, others believe that it caused by sorcery while some even believe the doctors are killing the patients. “People don’t seem to believe anything the government now says,” the former Liberian health minister Peter Coleman was quoted in late July.

In Guinea Red Cross aid workers were attacked by armed villagers for trying to retrieve ‘freed’ patients. In Sierra Leone the army has had to break up demonstrations outside hospitals treating Ebola patients. The numerous conspiracy theories and mistrust of the government has not helped matters for our West African brothers and sisters.

The same has been the case in East Africa. A rumour was spread that there was an Ebola patient in Rwanda through a certain Rwandan website and via social media but the health ministry including the minister herself were quick to clarify that it was all false.

A suspected patient was treated and cleared in Uganda while on Friday Kenyans on twitter were talking about a suspected case of the disease and started calling on their national airline to stop flights to West Africa.

In this era of social media, governments must be ready to put up a good communication machinery to outdo the fast spread of rumours while also provide the necessary information in case of an outbreak of the disease.

Uganda has had to deal with Ebola on two occasions and during both times the government communication machinery was top notch and the disease was later contained. People were advised not to shake hands, to always wash their hands and even sensitised on the dangers of the disease.

To show how serious this disease is, those who visited President Museveni at State House would be told to wash their hands and the president wore gloves during the time of the crisis. With the president also showing his fear, the rest of the population knew this was not a joking matter.

In the 80s Uganda was faced by the HIV/AIDS scourge and again President Museveni later won a lot of praise for how the country dealt with the disease through an aggressive communication policy that clarified on how the disease is spread and how to deal with it.

East Africa should therefore pick the same lesson. Proper communication is vital in such situations and rumour mongers should not be allowed to take the day just because they have twitter accounts, blogs or a website.

The good thing is that with the EAC structures and spirit, the region should be in a better place to deal with such a health disaster if it were to happen here. With Rwandair and Kenya Airways still doing flights to West Africa our airports should be ready to handle any cases.

Twitter: @ssojo81

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