Pop tunes become infomercials in the fight against Ebola in West Africa

The World
A UN convoy of soldiers passes a screen displaying a message about Ebola on a street in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on August 14, 2014.
A UN convoy of soldiers passes a screen displaying a message about Ebola on a street in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on August 14, 2014.

Luc Gnago/Reuters

The afternoon show on Liberia’s Hott FM is usually dedicated to local music and Liberian hiphop. It's not the place Liberians would usually turn for emergency health warnings. But in the last few weeks, more and more of the music has been dedicated to a single message: "it" is real.

"It" is Ebola, the disease that has killed more than 1,200 people — and counting — across West Africa. But even in countries where hundreds have died, the fight to control Ebola is hampered by public suspicion of governments and official medical advice. 

By using radio and music, stations like Hott FM are now at the forefront of a battle to convince people that the crisis is genuine, and that advice on limiting its spread should be believed.

One of the most frequently played Ebola songs in Liberia has an uplifting, almost gospel feel. “Ebola is in Liberia/Ebola is real, Ebola can kill,” croons a soothing female voice. “It has no cure, but it can be prevented/Ebola! Ebola! Let’s fight it together."

It's an uphill struggle: This week, a quarantine center in Monrovia, the Liberian captial, was attacked by a mob who freed patients suspected of carrying the disease. Many people continue to believe that the virus either doesn’t exist or is part of a conspiracy.

Local politics can also interfere with medical advice. “[In Sierra Leone] the virus was first confirmed in the east of the country, which is normally regarded as the opposition stronghold," says Musa Sangerie,  a program manager at BBC Media Action in Sierra Leone. “So people had the impression that this was a ploy by the governing party to reduce the number of eligible voters, and this made it very, very difficult to convince people of the fact that Ebola is a deadly virus."

Sangerie's group, a development charity funded by the BBC, has been helping radio stations adjust their message on the disease. It's not only a matter of convincing people of the existence of the disease: In remote rural areas, it can also be difficult to spread practical advice on protection. 

There is limited TV coverage, and illiteracy means that print media has little impact. Radio is one of the only ways to fill that gap.  As a result, many  of the Ebola song lyrics give detailed advice on avoiding contact with corpses, and explain that bodily fluids are particularly dangerous.

Whether music radio can really change public opinion remains to be seen. But at Hott FM, the crisis looks likely to remain the main topic of music, discussions and call-ins. 

Listen to a radio spot from Sierra Leone warning people about how to react to Ebola symptoms: