The efforts to stem the 2013-2015 Ebola epidemic revealed fundamental deficits in the health policies and strategies of the afflicted West African countries – but also of regional and international organizations. The spread of the epidemic was exacerbated by cross-border migration in West Africa, basic shortcomings in healthcare systems, loss of public confidence in health authorities and ineffectual risk communication. The Commission of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its specialist institution for health, the West African Health Organization (WAHO), have a mandate to assist member states in controlling epidemics.
That ECOWAS support is in-progress and on-track, but it requires further institutional support. The Regional Program supporting Pandemic Prevention in the ECOWAS Region (RPPP) programme objective is defined as “advice provided by the ECOWAS Commission, the ECOWASinstitutions and specialized agencies to ECOWAS member states on setting up selected disease control mechanisms in keeping with the International Health Regulations (IHR)”. Risk communication is one of the core competencies of IHR that countries need to strengthen in this context. The working definition of Risk Communication from the IHR working group refers to the real-time exchange of information, advice and opinions between experts or officials and people who face a threat (hazard) to their survival, health or economic or social well-being. Its ultimate purpose is that everyone at risk is able to take informed decisions to mitigate the effects of the threats from a disease outbreak and take protective and preventive action. To achieve this, risk communication can use a mix of communication and engagement strategies and tactics, including – but not limited to – media communications, social media, mass awareness campaigns, health promotion, stakeholder engagement, social mobilization and community engagement.
As part of the RPPP risk communication strategy, Sensi Tech Innovation Hub in partnership with GIZ and GFA will be organizing and facilitating the Health Hackathons on Risk Communication for the ECOWAS Region to address Output 1 of the RPPP program (“improvement of gender-sensitive health risk communication in the ECOWAS region”) in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria. The first hackathon will be held in Sierra Leone at the end of May 2018.