The Rap Against Ebola

Music can be a powerful tool against a killer disease
Illustration by Bloomberg View; Photographs by Getty Images

In an effort to control the outbreak of Ebola in Africa, public officials are turning into music producers. The Ebola Rap is performed by famous Liberian hip-hop singers and underwritten by the country’s health ministry, along with Unicef and other groups.

Although the situation may be desperate, the strategy is not. One of the greatest challenges in fighting the worst outbreak on record of one of the world’s deadliest diseases is communication—with patients, their families, and the public at large.

In this context the Ebola Rap is a brilliant stroke. The song contains the gritty details about how Ebola is spread (“in direct contact with the blood, saliva, urine, stool, sweat, semen of an infected person, or infected animal”) and how to respond to symptoms (“go to the hospital”). It’s one of a handful of songs filling a great need: to communicate to the public that “Ebola is real” (a line from the song) and how to prevent and treat it.

While Americans and Europeans fret over the unlikely possibility that Ebola will invade their shores, medical workers in Africa see all too clearly how it spreads. In Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, weak health-care systems are struggling not only to treat thousands of patients but also to deal with a general population understandably wary of outside medical practices.

In areas with only one or two doctors for every 100,000 people, it’s been impossible to keep track of all who’ve come in contact with every Ebola patient. (In an ideal world, they would be monitored for 21 days.) People have become frightened of both the disease and its treatment, which entails several weeks in isolation wards. People with symptoms flee care centers or hide in their communities, and many residents of quarantined neighborhoods try to escape.

Getting Ebola under control will require working with, rather than against, local customs and ways of thinking about medical care. The Ebola Rap is part of a smart overall strategy of using anthropology to contain the outbreak. “Call in the anthropologists” may sound like a weak response to a powerful killer. Yet it’s crucial that non-native health officials understand local resistance. In the case of this outbreak, it means allowing victims’ families to see and understand how their loved ones are being treated, even after death. In Guinea, for example, 60 percent of Ebola cases have been linked to traditional burials.

Where people are being forcibly quarantined, public health officials have a special obligation to ensure that everyone inside has access to health care and counseling—not to mention food, water, and services—and protection from exposure to the virus. They are trying. The United Nations World Food Program is preparing to feed 1 million people in restricted areas of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

Containing Ebola will take months. But the virus can be brought to heel if communication can be improved. Any effort that helps the cause—including a rap song—is worthwhile.


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