The Role of ICTs in Fighting EBOLA and Other Deadly Diseases

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Today, August 5, 2014 is my birthday and as I write this article, I do so with a heavy heart and in sympathy with those families who have lost their loved ones to the deadly Ebola Virus. To those who are infected with the disease, remember, you are in our prayers. But I am also thankful to the Almighty God for allowing me to see this day, and the many that I have seen thus far. I pray and hope that He will allow me to see many more to come and in good health.

Ok, that being said, Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) have been and will continue to play a crucial role in combating the spread of diseases all over the world. The ongoing Ebola outbreak in parts of West Africa (Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia) which began in Guinea in December, 2013 has further confirmed this. Hence, policymakers should now see this as a wakeup call to invest, without hesitation, in the integration of ICTs and health-care resources in their societies, to save the lives of their citizens as well as other nationals resident in their countries.

In recent times, Liberia has been battling a severe and very challenging public health issue that has the inclination to retrogress the gains already made in the country in the aftermath its 14-year civil war. The outbreak of the contagious Ebola disease which has already caused the suspected and confirmed deaths of over 227 people in Liberia, according to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) July 30, 2014 report, ( 346 in Guinea and 252 in Sierra Leone), is a very serious threat to the wellbeing of all Liberians and other nationals resident in the country. We heard about the two Americans who were infected with the disease, the death of the Ugandan Doctor who came to help us, the death of Brother Patrick Nshamdze Chief Administrator of the St. Joseph Catholic Hospital, and of course that of our own Dr. Sam Brisbane.

It is unfortunate, that health workers who are expected to help cure the sick are the ones who themselves are and have been victims of this virus. They put their lives in harms way to protect the lives of others and to get the necessary information out to the public. In doing so, many of them have lost their lives. By its gradual inflicting of serious mayhem on the socio-economic and human resource fabric of the country, one cannot ignore the parallel or resemblance between the effects of the Ebola outbreak and those of our 14-year civil war.

Yet, we are neither the first nor the only country being affected by this epidemic. Guinea and Sierra Leone which also experienced their share of civil unrest are also victims of this quagmire. Moreover, since its discovery in Zaire in 1976 and hitherto the writing of this article, the Ebola attack on West Africa has been the worse recorded.

Attempts to counter the disease have taken many forms and approaches; one of them being the effective utilization of ICT. ICT’s impact has been felt overwhelmingly in the fight against EBOLA. In Liberia, the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare has demonstrated ICT’s crucial and indispensable role by effectively utilizing its website to provide up-to-date information to Liberians here, and the rest of the world. Information provided on the website has been keeping Liberians and the world apprised of Ebola cases and this has helped galvanize sensitization of the Liberian public and mobilization of resources to combat the virus. This has also led to humanitarian assistance which is desperately needed.  

A more phenomenal impact of ICT, is the Ministry’s utilization of mobile phones to battle the disease. Battling the Ebola involves countering misinformation, strengthening health teams and using other ICTs to track the outbreak. Mobile phones have proven to be effective in this endeavor because of their ubiquity and penetration in Liberia. We should therefore continue to harness them to prevent the further spread of Ebola.

But as always, there’s room for improvement from lessons learned during this quagmire. For example, the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare’s website could be made more interactive and collaborative by including a forum for discussion, a Wiki to tap into the brains of experts, and a chatroom to allow real-time communications. An online helpdesk manned by a customer service representative or health worker on 24-hour basis, to allow citizents to report issues, would be helpful as well. But most importantly, a ROBUST TELEMECINE PROGRAM must be set up to ensure that healthcare is provided to areas, especially rural areas, where there are limited expertise.

The Government has not been the only one fighting this disease. Everyone has, including our mobile operators. They (mobile operators) have been doing well in terms of sensitizing the nation about the effects of the deadly virus. Lonestar Cell MTN, Cellcom, and Novafone and other internet service providers have been aggressively assisting the government in the battle against Ebola. With the increase in mobile and internet penetration, our mobile companies’ role in battling the virus cannot be overemphasized. In Liberia, almost every family has at least one of its members using mobile phones who in turn could help in the dissemination of information.  Furthermore, through mobile phones and their accompanying applications such as: whatsapp, Facebook, twitter, google plus etc., Liberians can easily reach out to families and friends. Facebook in particular, has been a very effective medium for the dissemination of information on the Ebola virus.

We are in a trying time, one that requires an “all-hands-on-deck” approach which means Liberians at home and abroad must amalgamate end this plague before it’s too late. The involvement of everyone is particularly important at this stage of the spread of the virus. Sensitization must be intensified and the necessary should logistics also be provided to ensure we win the battle against the Ebola virus.

Now, the outbreak of the Ebola virus and the impact it has had on the sub-region have made governments and other stakeholders provide millions of dollars to counter the disease. It is my hope that the all financial contributions be utilized prudently and accounted for as well. In situations like this as was in the case of our civil war, when international support is forthcoming, the tendency for such funding to be mismanaged is highly probable.

In her book titled, “Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health” (available on Amazon.com), Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Laurie Garrett writes: “Ebola haunted Zaire because of corruption and political repression. The virus had no secret powers, nor was it unusually contagious. For centuries Ebola had lurked in the jungles of central Africa. Its emergence into human populations required the special assistance of humanity's greatest vices: greed, corruption, arrogance, tyranny, and callousness.” Let us pray and hope that none of “humanity greatest vices” referred to by Garrett ever applies to our situation.

Finally, we should learn from this situation and invest in our ICT sector to ensure that we are adequately prepared and able to effectively utilize ICTs to prevent or battle any future form of disease. It is time that we develop robust e-health system that allows healthcare workers to provide health services (without traveling), to areas with limited expertise. ICTs, as President Sirleaf noted in her speech at Georgia Tech in 2007, do indeed allow many possibilities; one of those possibilities is using them (ICTs) to live a healthy life.

Until next week, Carpe Diem!!!!

Authors

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