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FAO Launches Ebola Awareness Campaign in West Africa

In this photo taken on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, traders speak to one another at a makeshift border control point at one of the largest trading areas catering for people from the Kambia District, in Kambia, Guinea. Since the Ebola virus outbreak the border has been closed with the local population's movement stopped as a attempt to stop the virus from spreading. Kambia district provides an important trade route to or from Guinea's capital Conakry, and to or from Sierra Leone's capital Freetown. (AP Photo/ Youssouf Bah)

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization helps developing countries grow better crops and raise healthier livestock. It does so by training government field agents, who work in local communities. Now those same people are being enlisted to help stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa.

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The project is being kicked-off in Guinea, where the Ebola outbreak began last December. A two-year-old child was the first infected and first to die. The significance of that was not realized for months – and the infection rate and death toll have continued to rise.

To help stem the spread, Ebola training workshops for 90 rural development and agricultural extension agents have been held in seven districts in Guinea.

Vincent Martin, FAO’s representative in Senegal and the head of the regional hub for resilience and emergency in West Africa, said the FAO has been committed to the fight against the deadly virus.

“We know that the disease has spread in rural areas – places where there is a strong agricultural sector. And for this reason we’ve been working in close collaboration with our partners – the Ministry of Agriculture, of course, Ministry of Livestock – so that we could facilitate the work of human health doctors or nurses, who are trained to fight against the disease.”

The training was held over the past few weeks.

“We could mobilize our extension services, our agricultural workers, animal health workers to help spread the right messages regarding Ebola. We need to train the agricultural extension staff to better understand the epidemiology of the disease – to better understand how we can stop the spread of the disease by just implementing very simple measures of control, hygiene, etc.,” said Martin.

The training in Guinea – and eventually Liberia and Sierra Leone – centers on communication, information and – what’s called -- social mobilization.

“We mean that in the face of such a crisis, which is deeply rooted into cultural practices, it is very important to convey the right messages to the communities. To do that it’s not just a matter of communication. It’s communication in a specific, cultural context. So, what we mean by social mobilization is to try to convey the right messages, in terms of prevention measures, adapted to the local context – adapted to the cultural practices in a specific area,” said Martin.

Last month, in Guinea, eight members of a team were killed when they went to a rural area to raise awareness about Ebola. The dead included health workers and journalists. The attack was blamed on fear and suspicion on the part of villagers. However, the FAO-trained workers are not strangers.

“In the field there were some negative reactions towards people who were trying just to explain how to avoid Ebola -- just because the situation was not explained properly or because people didn’t understand. We try to understand what are the dynamics within this community so that we can spread the right messages. These people, they are in the field on a daily basis. They work with the farmers. They work with the livestock owners every day all year. So they’ve got a special relationship with these people,” he said.

The FAO-led awareness campaign in Guinea is expected to reach 9,000 households. Field agents will also distribute 36,000 bars of soap and 9,000 bottles of chlorine. They’ll also work with local communities to establish Ebola early warning systems to look for signs of the disease in wildlife.

The FAO says strengthening the role of Guinea’s Ministries of Livestock and Animal Production in the fight against Ebola will also help ensure food security.