Since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak in April 2014, the Red Cross – with the help of a local cellphone provider – has sent out about two million text messages a month to residents in Sierra Leone. The SMS alerts remind people showing symptoms to seek treatment early, avoid physical contact with others, and cooperate with community health workers.
By using SMS alerts to broadcasting urgent information to Sierra Leone’s citizens, text messaging is helping curb the spread of the Ebola virus with clear and immediate health information.
Why is text messaging so effective?
To combat the Ebola epidemic in Africa, international aide workers looked for ways to educate the public about the virus. They knew that Ebola moves fast – but not everyone could access information online. In Sierra Leone particularly, Internet access is sparse and communities are often isolated.
However, a majority of Sierra Leone’s population – 69 percent – owns a cell phone. And while the literacy rate for adults in Sierra Leone is 43 percent, information delivered via a text generally comes at an easier-to-digest reading level then any other medium. In regions where the majority of people are illiterate, text messages are read aloud by town criers so that the information can be disseminated to the public. Given these conditions, text messaging quickly became the preferred medium for aide workers to educate communities about how to stay safe.
The role of text messages in the Ebola outbreak
The Red Cross set up a system to send text messages with important health information to local residents in Sierra Leone, at no cost to the recipients.
- If someone you know is sick with sudden fever, diarrhea or vomiting, you should call 117 for advice.
- Healthcare workers who take care of Ebola patients have to wear protective clothes do not be afraid of them.
- People with Ebola who go to the health center early have a better chance of survival.
In addition to receiving messages, people in Sierra Leone can also text back to ask basic questions about Ebola and receive automated responses with information ranging from treatment options to tips for cleaning to medical assistance. The messages are even personalized with regional advice depending upon the area of the country that the mobile user lives in.
The wide reach and interactivity of SMS are the main reasons that aide workers have chosen it as the best way to educate people in Sierra Leone about Ebola.
Other applications of SMS in epidemics
As Ken Banks, a lead mobile technologist who has lived and worked with mobile technology in Africa since the 1990’s, points out, “Every mobile phone can do text messaging. It doesn’t matter if it’s the cheapest model or the most expensive.”
Using SMS alerts in response to major disasters and epidemics is not a novel strategy. Text messaging has been used to great effect during a number of other crises.
- During New York City’s Hurricane Irene, NYC residents could text in to report flood damage or find out if they were in a flood zone.
- The NYC Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery used text messaging during Hurricane Sandy to help displaced residents find housing options.
- During Hurricane Katrina, people used text messaging to broadcast their location when no other communication channels – including phone calls – were unavailable.
By broadcasting clear and direct information to geographically diverse populations, text messaging serves as an extremely useful tool in times where all possible help is needed. The simplicity and immediacy of text messaging make it the perfect tool for spreading life saving information to a large population.
If you’d like to learn more about text messaging’s work in bringing important health information to local communities, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.