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Photo by Larry Hollon, United Methodist Communications

Neelley Hicks (far right) moderates a panel at the GETHealth Summit held Nov. 13-4 in Dublin, Ireland. Other speakers (from left) are Sheri Lewis, Lesley-Anne Long and Smitha Mundasad.

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United Methodist Communications a Leader at Global Education and Technology Summit

By the Rev. Neelley Hicks
November 24, 2014

The Ebola crisis makes a very real case for why communications technologies are so desperately needed in low-resource parts of the world. Without the appropriate message channels, lives are needlessly lost, while misinformation, myth and rumors spread as rapidly as the disease.

United Methodist Communications took a leadership role in the 2014 GETHealth Summit – held in Dublin, Ireland, Nov. 13-14, 2014 – aimed at closing the communication gaps that exist among health workers and their communities.

I led a workshop titled “ICTs and their role in Communicating Health in Times of Crisis and Emergency,” having begun planning near the beginning of the Ebola outbreak. I remember thinking that by November we would be looking in retrospect at the crisis to see what worked and what didn’t. Little did I know that the outbreak would not be close to containment, and that so many lives would be lost to yet another preventable disease.

Some of the people I contacted to be on the panel were those closest to the situation, and using emerging communications technologies in the fight against Ebola. As the outbreak grew, panelists were deployed to the field and away from the conference. The workshop was shifted to Day One because of its importance, yet that meant another important panelist could not attend. By God’s grace and with the help of friends, a gifted panel was assembled: Smitha Mundasad, BBC; Lesley-Anne Long, mPowering; and Sheri Lewis, Johns Hopkins University.

Mundasad is a reporter at the BBC, covering health and science news, and she is also a physician. The BBC is working through a new communications channel to reach those with mobile phones. This new channel is called WhatsApp – the most popular chat app in Africa, which now has over 600 million users. WhatsApp has never been used before by such a large entity seeking to provide health education.

“This has been a great project so far," Mundasad said. "We have had thousands of subscribers in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. We have worked with the WHO, UNICEF and the CDC to make sure we are putting out useful infographics, audio and written material.  And people have been sending us back their queries about Ebola.  We have been able to provide quick answers on WhatsApp and through our radio, TV and online services, too. So it’s helping make sure our Ebola information is relevant to the people who want it most.”

Panelist Lesley-Anne Long was in a restaurant talking with her husband about the desperate need to train health-care workers in Ebola management, when a man from a nearby booth dropped a $50 bill on their table. He said, “Take care of those children in Africa.” Long looked at her husband and said, “We’ve got to each put $50 in. We’ve got to do this!”

“This” resulted in a webinar series that provided critical information to those putting their lives on the frontline of response, with a second series on its way; new partnerships with the Nigeria medical team who developed the Ebola Alert website; with Translations for Outbreaks and with Doctoori, a UK-based health information site. The webinar series is available for viewing at http://techchange.org/live-events/training-health-workers-for-ebola. Long is the Global Director at mPowering Frontline Health Workers (Washington, D.C.), a public-private partnership focused on ending preventable child and maternal deaths. I’ve suggested that she spend more time in restaurants — think of all the connections yet to be made!

What if disease outbreak patterns could be anticipated so that medical resources get to where they’re needed most, and that time is used to prepare rather than react? Panelist Sheri Lewis is a member of the Principal Professional Staff at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory; disease surveillance is part of her life’s work. The Suite for Automated Global Electronic bioSurveillance (SAGES) is the tool she uses, and is “a collection of modular, open-source software tools designed to meet the challenges of electronic disease surveillance in resource-limited settings.”

In countries where SAGES is being used, Lewis says, "Public health professionals are building their capacity to perform population-based surveillance, which allows them to identify potential disease outbreaks earlier than ever before."

I shared how United Methodist Communications is using mobile phones, radio, solar devices and animation in its crisis response. The animation – produced in collaboration with iHeed and Chocolate Moose Media – has taken on a life of its own, being played on national television, radio, Internet and group settings, reaching people throughout West Africa in their own dialects. One of the greatest gifts of a religious network is the human chain present in so many places that has the trust of its community. By pulsing life-giving information through that chain, we live the very essence of the theology we speak.

We live in an age when communications can do so much more than solely report on tragedies. If used well, communications can change outcomes. Perhaps it has always been the case, yet we must recognize that the information age, while saturating some, is missing others altogether. By using the very best in technologies and the very best in the human spirit, we can make that which is good viral, lessening dis-ease in all its forms.

*Hicks is director of ICT4D Church Initiatives at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

More about the GETHealth Summit

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the world faces a global shortage of almost 4.3 million doctors, midwives, nurses and other health care professionals, as well as a shortage of faculty that can provide high-quality training and mentorship for current training programs. However, the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help to overcome those challenges.

The summit aims to bring together stakeholders from different sectors, levels and geographies, including governments, nongovernmental organizations, education and the digital and IT sectors to generate fresh knowledge, partnerships and ideas that can address the global health worker shortage, through the use of digital media and ICTs.

This year’s conference has evolved into a collaboration between iHeed and the Johns Hopkins Center for Clinical Global Health Education, building on from two very successful events, which were held in 2013 — GETHealth Summit and mHealthEd.