Q&A: How Technology is Transforming Ebola Response Efforts

In a new Q&A series, we are profiling the experts who have worked tirelessly to stop the spread of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa and are helping societies rebuild and strengthen health systems in the aftermath of the outbreak.

Eric King, an innovation specialist with the Digital Development Team in the Global Development Lab, worked on USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) in Liberia for two months in 2015, working to coordinate the flow of critical data. He came to USAID in September 2013 with a doctorate in Planetary Physics. Follow him @eric_m_king.

What innovations have been developed to combat Ebola?

Almost every aspect of the Ebola response has been innovative. We have never before fought a disease this deadly on this kind of scale. Response teams have had to educate remote communities, meticulously seek out new Ebola cases, provide new facilities for isolating and treating patients, safely bury infected bodies while observing local customs, and all on a massive scale and with no time to lose.

All of these efforts are critical to preventing further spread of the disease. To be successful, trust and solidarity must be created between responders and the communities they work in. Those relationships are fostered by weaving strong communication lines – including feedback loops – into the response network, often helped by harnessing existing technologies like radio and mobile phones.

How will the role that science and technology played in this response affect the way we approach future emergencies?

Among the technological tools that have amplified the Ebola response, arguably none has been more helpful than the mobile phone.

A decade ago, a small percentage of West Africans had access to cellphones. Now, mobile phones allow us to connect those in need with those who can help. Families of the sick can call emergency Ebola hotlines, social mobilizers can share tips for community engagement, individuals can resolve Ebola rumors by texting local radio stations, health workers can be paid electronically, and clinics can flag when they’re low on supplies.

The unique communications needs of the Ebola response have tested and ultimately strengthened the connections between all the many people and organizations that come together in times of emergency.

In a crisis, efficiently managing the flow of information is key. How did USAID rapidly get things to where they were needed?

USAID’s logistics professionals have decades of experience managing supply chains in complex emergencies, ensuring that critical commodities like food, water, and medical supplies are available to those who need them, and they’re really good at it. Similarly, we recognize the importance of ensuring that actionable information is available when and where it’s needed.

For example, ambulance teams need to know where to find the sick as soon as they show symptoms so they can be quickly isolated and treated. Contact tracing teams need to know where to find those who have recently been in contact with confirmed Ebola patients so they can monitor them for symptoms. Food distribution teams need to know where to find at-risk households who have volunteered to stay at home to protect their neighbors so that they can deliver necessary supplies.

During the Ebola response, USAID deployed an information management advisor to work with local government and partners to coordinate the flow of information throughout the response network. These efforts are often amplified by integrating proven digital technologies and mobile data tools.

USAID believes in tapping the ingenuity of nontraditional sources. How did this play a role in the Ebola response?

USAID launched the Ebola Grand Challenge, the first-ever open innovation platform for a disaster response. Through the challenge, anyone anywhere could offer a solution for how to better fight Ebola. We received more than 1,500 applications from individuals and organizations from all over the world, many of whom had never worked with USAID. From all of these diverse, creative ideas, 15 innovations have been selected to receive support.

The porous nature of borders can make tracking and containing Ebola difficult. How did the international community work to counter this?

When Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced in February that the country’s land borders were reopening, response organizations worked with the Liberian government to quickly develop and deploy a set of best practices for border health security.

This involved two major components: border screening and community surveillance. People passing through official border crossings are screened for signs of Ebola in order to identify, isolate, test, and treat those who may be infected.

This is a vital first step, but we also recognize that there will inevitably be travellers that cross the border unofficially. So, we’ve also brought communities near the borders into the formal surveillance process -- effectively crowdsourcing an Ebola alert system.

Furthermore, communities on either side of the border are working together to make sure that communication channels are available to alert one another.

Amid the Ebola crisis, many stories have emerged describing heroic aid efforts and acts of bravery. What stories touched you most?

I’ve found inspiration in the selfless dedication of the medical professionals who put themselves at risk and extreme discomfort to treat those in need. Working in full protective equipment in sweltering heat and humidity, they have been tirelessly and skillfully fighting to save as many lives as they can.

In some treatment units, some of the Ebola patients themselves began helping to provide care for the other patients who were suffering most. And some Ebola survivors, now immune, have organized themselves to work with health professionals to provide care to those in need. It inspires me to see such compassion and solidarity emerge from this unprecedented tragedy.

About the Author: Clara Wagner serves in USAID’s Bureau of Legislative and Public Affairs.

Editor's Note: This blog entry originally appeared on the USAID Impact Blog.

For more information:

Member of an Ebola case investigation team, returns from interviewing people who may have been in contact with a new patient [USAID Photo by Neil Brandvold]
Posted by Clara Wagner
July 3, 2015

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