Obama’s Message to West Africans on the Ebola Outbreak

By Rebecca Kreston | September 14, 2014 5:40 pm

Last week, the State Department performed a small but smart gesture towards countering the continued outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa by releasing a video featuring President Barack Obama speaking to the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Nigeria.

Educating the millions of people in this region on the facts of this massive outbreak and its transmission has been difficult, stymied by widespread suspicion of  government officials and health workers, not to mention the perpetual rumors of quack cures. Cultural behaviors have also contributed detrimentally to the spread of Ebola: common practices such as caring for the ill at home and washing the bodies of the deceased have amplified the transmission of the virus within families and communities. President Obama addresses these issues and more in this candid public service announcement (PSA). The recorded message is to be translated into the local languages of the region and American embassies based in the affected countries will allegedly host the video on their websites. A transcript of his message can be found below the video.

Along with our partners around the world, the United States is working with your governments to help stop this disease. And the first step in this fight is knowing the facts.

First, Ebola is not spread through the air like the flu. You cannot get it from casual contact, like sitting next to someone on a bus. You cannot get it from another person until they show the symptoms of the disease, like fever.

Second, the most common way you can get Ebola is by touching the body fluids of someone who’s sick or has died from it — like their sweat, saliva or blood — or through a contaminated item, like a needle.

That’s why the disease is continuing to spread where patients are being cared for at home or during burials when families and friends lay their loved one to rest. That’s why health care workers wear protection like gloves and masks. It’s why, if you feel sick with a high fever, you should get help right away — because with prompt treatment in a medical center, nearly half of patients can recover.

And it’s why, when burying someone who died from this disease, it’s important to not directly touch their body; you can respect your traditions and honor your loved ones without risking the lives of the living.

Stopping this disease won’t be easy — but we know how to do it. You are not alone. Together, we can treat those who are sick with respect and dignity. We can save lives. And our countries can work together to improve public health, so this kind of outbreak doesn’t happen again.

This is not the first time than an American president has reached out to the public, either local or international, on pressing health matters. In 1976, President Gerald Ford was photographed receiving the swine flu vaccine from the White House physician, hoping to convince Americans to be vaccinated against what was thought to be an epidemic on the brink. In the late 1980s, after many years of willful apathy and disregard for the burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, Ronald Reagan addressed the transmission of the virus in a short baffling video that called for compassion and empathy. Obama, too, has reached out to Africans previously. In his tour of the continent as a U.S. senator, he and Michelle Obama were tested for HIV/AIDS  in front of a crowd in Kisumu, Kenya in an effort to destigmatize the infection.

Though this gesture may seem trivial and even flaccid compared to the sheer material resources and personnel required to contain an outbreak that appears to be well beyond the control of authorities, it is an important and much needed one. One of the most powerful and well known men in the world, a man who happens to be the son of a Kenyan national, has reached out to Africans distrustful of international authorities and health officials. This PSA was a smart strategy aimed at informing the public on “knowing the facts,” plainly communicated by a well-known and respected figure of authority. Hopefully, the video will also appear as a reassuring gesture to West Africans of the intentions and goals of the local and international health community at a time of urgent need.

Previously on the Body Horrors Blog

The Public Health Legacy of the 1976 Swine Flu Outbreak

Chronicle of a Death Foretold: Human Sentinels for Disease Outbreaks

Congo’s Uncharted Territory

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Body Horrors

Body Horrors looks at the history, anthropology and geography of infectious diseases and parasites.

About Rebecca Kreston

Rebecca Kreston is an infectious disease scholar trained in microbiology and epidemiology. She obtained her Biology degree from Reed College and her Masters of Science in Tropical Medicine from Tulane University. She's lived in tropical jungles, beaches and deserts around the world and has been exposed to several of the diseases that she studies. She currently lives in New Orleans, is a fourth year medical student and regularly battles insects of the Diptera, Siphonaptera and Hymenoptera orders.

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