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Video reaches ‘Spiderman’ audience with Ebola messaging

November 16, 2017 By Kelly April Tyrrell

In early 2015, during the height of the most deadly Ebola outbreak in history, University of Wisconsin–Madison virology professor Yoshihiro Kawaoka and a team of his researchers worked in Sierra Leone to study blood samples from patients hospitalized with the virus.

On Nov. 16, 2017, the researchers published the results of the large and comprehensive study that resulted, unlocking a wealth of information, including ways to determine upon admission to the hospital who is likely to survive and who is likely to die from Ebola. It could potentially save lives should an outbreak occur again. The recent outbreak, which took place between 2013 and 2016, killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa.

However, Kawaoka’s work did not stop with that one study. In March 2017, he and his team were back in Sierra Leone to participate in public health events in communities within the cities of Freetown and Makeni. While there, Kawaoka collected 634 blood and serum samples from Ebola virus survivors and close contacts of theirs who never got sick.

“We partnered with Sony in Sierra Leone to host a public viewing of a movie and included public health messaging: What to do and not do with Ebola,” says Kawaoka. “We also followed up with survivors and their close contacts because one of the things we want to know is why are some people exposed but do not show symptoms?”

The event was coordinated by a Madison, Wisconsin-based nonprofit called Project 1808, founded in 2009 by Sierra Leone native Alhaji N’jai, a research scientist in the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and instructor at the Global Health Institute. Project 1808 is “all about providing young people and adults in communities in Sierra Leone with tools they need for sustainable development,” N’jai explains, and it includes a community health component.

N’jai worked with Sony to set up a large-screen showing of blockbuster films like Spiderman, which drew as many as 1,000 people from each community. He and a colleague at the nonprofit wrote scripts for short commercial films about infectious diseases like Ebola, cholera and malaria and hired local actors to produce them in their local languages. They also developed information about hypertension, environmental pollution, and sanitation and solid waste.

“It was really powerful because they could watch Spiderman and in between have a commercial on cholera or Ebola,” says N’jai. “By our second or third day there, I could see kids explaining to their friends what could happen if someone doesn’t wash their hands before eating, or after using the restroom.”

The event also served as a health fair, where participants could have their blood pressure, temperature, height and weight checked and have the results explained to them.

For Kawaoka, the experience was rewarding. It was a chance to work with the local communities that have allowed him to pursue his research and it could yield invaluable information about why some people don’t get sick from Ebola. This information could be critical to vaccines or drugs used to treat people in the future.

“It was a project we did with the university, local people, and with support of the mayors,” says Kawaoka. “It was fun.”