At the age of 12, I went through that typical stage in any young woman’s life when she becomes obsessed with all things infectious diseases – particularly ebola. From watching Outbreak on repeat and imagining I would one day be the virologist that found the cure to reading Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone until I’d memorized every page and then moving on to Laurie Garret’s The Coming Plague – light reading, I know. I’d like to think it was this early interest in infectious diseases sparked my pursuit of a career in healthcare communications, but that’s a story I’ll save for another blog post on another day.
As you can imagine, I’ve been following the recent outbreak of the Ebola Zaire Virus in Western Africa like it’s a second job. My heart goes out to the families that have lost loved ones and the countless healthcare workers and volunteers that have been striving to care for those affected and also keep the disease contained. So when I came across Uri Freedman’s article in The Atlantic, “How to Make a Hit Song About Ebola,” during my daily ebola search, my two worlds collided. I realized there is much we as healthcare communicators can be learning from this crisis when it comes to our disease education efforts.
Freedman’s story reported on the unique ways in which communications professionals, government officials and national artists are collaborating to help educate their fellow country men and women about how to protect themselves and prevent the spread of ebola, which as of the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports has killed more than 1,400 people in West Africa and more than 600 in Liberia alone since March. With only 43 percent of the population literate, 84 percent living below the national poverty line and nearly half under the age of 18, the public health community providing disease awareness education by way of Hip-Co style music – a blend of U.S.-style hip-hop and the colloquial English dialect you hear on the street that appeals to young Liberians.
One song that’s taken the nation by storm is the Hott FM Ebola Song, created by Adolphus Scott, a Liberian communications specialist for UNICEF, in partnership with Liberia’s Ministry of Health & Social Welfare, the radio station Hott FM, and popular Liberian artists F.A., Soul Fresh and DenG who composed the lyrics and music. The song and several others that have been created since without government involvement (“State of Emergency” and “Ebola Town”) include warnings that the disease is very real and direction on how it’s spread, and most importantly, are catchy and working. In fact, the Hott FM Ebola Song is appearing daily on Liberian television and around 20 radio stations nationwide, and efforts are now underway to create educational songs that resonate with the country’s older population.
This initiative is a tried and true example of creatively and effectively communicating in a way your audience understands. So often in the healthcare and specifically pharmaceutical communications world we allow guidelines to limit our creativity and distract us from focusing on the end goal – communicating in a meaningful way to each of the target audiences we’re looking to reach. We should all take a moment to reflect on the efforts underway in Liberia and think about how we can continue to deliver important public health and disease education information in a catchy way that will inspire action.