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Communicating The Right Message About Ebola


Yesterday, a new case of Ebola was reported in Liberia - this after weeks of no new cases. It's been a year since the Ebola outbreak started in West Africa. More than 10,000 people have died. Last summer, health officials thought it would be a lot worse - that a million people might get infected. And they still don't know why exactly that didn't happen. One theory is it was all about how officials talked to people about the disease - the messaging.

My colleague, producer Rebecca Hersher, and I were in Liberia last fall. And Becky, what was the first message people heard from the government one year ago?

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Back then, it was all about containment. Stay at home. Do not leave your community.

MCEVERS: But that didn't work, right? I mean, it was May, and Ebola was spreading in the capital. And the government was, you know, appealing for help and money.

HERSHER: Problem was, this made Liberians super skeptical. We talked to one of the people responsible for putting out messages back then. His name is Adolphus Scott. He's a communications specialist with UNICEF. And he says people simply did not believe Ebola was real.


ADOLPHUS SCOTT: Radio stations were having talk shows on a daily basis and castigating government and saying this was a conspiracy. It was all about people trying to just get money in their pocket.

MCEVERS: So Adolphus Scott and a bunch of other health and public relations officials got together and decided they needed a slogan.

HERSHER: And what they came up with was really simple.

MCEVERS: Ebola is real.


SCOTT: People were all saying, oh, it's not real. So we were saying, my brother, this thing is real. It's no joke.

HERSHER: Still, it's June at this point, and Ebola is clearly not under control. The next challenge was how to get that slogan out.

MCEVERS: So Adolphus Scott meets up with a big-time DJ and asks him to convince these three major hip-hop artists to help.


SCOTT: I told them that we had to do a song that will speak to the heads of people, that would get people to take action and not just an ordinary song.

MCEVERS: The government had to approve the lyrics. It was on the radio the next morning.


UNIDENTIFIED DJ: You know, I can't play a whole lot of songs without playing you this.


SCOTT: We had 22 FM stations playing this song, like, eight times a day.

UNIDENTIFIED DJ: Fast becoming the national - the anthem for Ebola.

SCOTT: And kids in the community started to sing the song, and the song became really popular. And everybody would, like, wait for the song to go, like, (singing) oh, na, na, na, na, na, na. And everybody, like, fell in love with the song.


SOUL FRESH: (Singing) My people, it real.

HERSHER: By this point, it's August. Everybody is singing this song. But still, people are dying in the streets in Monrovia.

MCEVERS: Then, Janet Telfer, a communications specialist with the Centers for Disease Control, arrives in Liberia.


JANET TELFER: The best word to describe September and October was desperate. We were just desperate because the virus was so far ahead of us.

MCEVERS: So by this point, the message was all about admitting Ebola is real and saying things like wash your hands, don't touch each other - messages that assured people Ebola could be prevented, even beaten.

HERSHER: Telfer says this is a natural response from officials.

MCEVERS: But she says you have to say something else, too.

TELFER: What research shows actually works is acknowledging that things are really bad and that they might get worse, because that shows the people in the country or the people in the community that you're working with that you're aware of what they're dealing with. You're aware of their circumstances.

MCEVERS: So Telfer and other officials retool the message again, this time to say things are really bad. Here's Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on CNN.


ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: The situation is quite serious, coming close to being a catastrophe.

TELFER: So we didn't replace any of the messages, but we enveloped them, if you will, by starting out with a statement like we know that many people have died as a result of this epidemic. And every death from Ebola is a loss to our entire country.


SIRLEAF: It is heartbreaking when we see people die. It's heartbreaking when we see people not in any position to be able to combat a disease because it's a strange unknown one for which there is no cure.

TELFER: So just some very small things that really allow people to lead with their humanity instead of leading with their official position.

HERSHER: It's hard to quantify how much of an effect this change in messaging actually had. You have to take into account that aid organizations were able to build new hospitals.

MCEVERS: The U.S. military had stepped in.

HERSHER: And Liberians inside their communities worked hard to identify and treat Ebola patients locally.

MCEVERS: Around October, Ebola cases did start to slow down.

HERSHER: In November, the message changed again - Ebola must go.

MCEVERS: A couple of weeks ago, Liberia thought it might be Ebola free.

HERSHER: But just this week, there was that new case.

MCEVERS: Adolphus Scott says that song still plays on the radio and out of speakers on top of government vans that drive around from town to town talking to people about Ebola.


SCOTT: I was on my way from central Liberia, and I heard the song being played somewhere along the way last evening. And there are talk shows that are on Ebola on radio and television, and the song "Ebola Is Real" is always that theme song.


SOUL FRESH: (Singing) Ebola in town, Ebola in town, I know. You know, wash your hands with soap and cook your food good. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.