Advice, guidance and protocols provided by an award-winning team of anthropologists during the Ebola crisis increased the effectiveness of medical and humanitarian responses, saving lives and reducing the spread of the disease.

The Ebola Response Anthropology Platform (ERAP) website built as the focal point for life-saving information and dialogue during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has won Professor Melissa Leach, Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and an international team from  four institutions a £10,000 award for Outstanding International Impact in the 2016 Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Celebrating Impact Prize.

Within weeks of the World Health Organisation declaring Ebola a public health emergency of international concern in August 2014, Professor Leach with a team of anthropologists and knowledge exchange experts set up ERAP, enabling social scientists to provide co-ordinated advice and support to outbreak control workers on the ground.

When the Ebola epidemic began some humanitarian response teams found themselves under attack from the people they were trying to help. As anthropologists with three decades’ worth of research experience in the tri-border region of Sierra Leone-Guinea-Liberia, Professor Leach and others from ERAP understood the reasons for this resistance, the need to bring communities on board and how this might be achieved.

“Public health responses were faltering often for social and cultural reasons,” Professor Leach points out. “We were able to feed social science into the emergency responses, helping to make them more effective.” Ebola, she stresses, could only be contained by working with local people in a sensitive and respectful way, building on their own knowledge and adaptations, rather than trying to impose disease control measures on them.

For example, while aid workers knew that funerals were a key transmission route for Ebola with kin coming from far afield to take part in burial rituals, they were making little headway in preventing this practice, and communities often found their interventions offensive. 

Understanding the social significance of burial attendance, ERAP provided guidance on how to work with local communities to refine burial protocols – interacting with the right local leaders, minimising touching and making the burial safe, substituting physical for non physical rituals and sacrifices, and gaining agreement to delay some traditional visits until after the crisis.

With its website accessed by more than 16,000 users, ERAP delivered advice online and face-to-face to policymakers and practitioners in identifying and diagnosing cases, managing death and funerals, caring for the sick and improving communications and community engagement.  

ERAP directly shaped response activities in Sierra Leone including implementation of locally appropriate community care centres, safe burials, social mobilisation approaches and vaccine trials as well as delivering pre-departure training on engaging effectively with socio-cultural practices for 362 clinical personnel.

ERAP shaped not only on-the-ground action in West Africa but also informed UK government strategy. ERAP members formed a social science sub-group of the UK government Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advising the government Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientist. They also presented evidence to three UK Parliamentary Inquiries on Ebola, joined three core World Health Organisation committees and produced more than 40 briefings for DFID, MOD, Christian Aid and others.

Now in its fourth year, the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize recognises and rewards the successes of ESRC-funded researchers who have achieved, or are currently achieving, outstanding economic and societal impacts. In awarding the prize for Outstanding International Impact to Professor Leach and team, the judging panel stated, ‘it’s clear that the ERAP team had a direct impact on lessening the amount of deaths and spread of Ebola by ensuring that learning from years of research in the area was highlighted to the right people in the right organisations’.

Case study and video