Laura Burke

Disease-fighting Data: In Sierra Leone, tracking Ebola’s economic impact

As the spread of Ebola gradually slows and international attention to the disease wanes, the battle to contain the outbreak is still being fought on the ground. In fact, the crisis is far from over: The World Health Organization reported the number of new Ebola cases rose in all three of West Africa’s worst-hit countries during the last week of January.

In the face of a crisis like this, reliable data are necessary. As Rachel Glennerster, Tavneet Suri and Herbert M’cleod wrote in a recent New York Times editorial, “Without reliable data, efforts to assist affected people and to rebuild damaged communities can be misdirected and inefficient.” They said, “Misleading reports, speculation and poor projections from international agencies, government ministries and the media about the Ebola outbreak exacerbated the problem.”

To counter this trend and support an evidence-based response to the crisis, Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) has been collecting data on the economic impacts of the crisis and is working on piloting and evaluating an electronic contact-tracing system that could substantially improve efficiency and reduce Ebola transmission rates. With our partners, we are sharing information with policymakers and relief organizations as it comes in.

“The priority right now is getting information into the hands of policymakers so they can effectively respond to the crisis,” said Andrew Tedesco, the country director of IPA in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

For example, IPA and the International Growth Centre activated an existing, phone-based food-price-monitoring system to measure how Ebola has economically impacted communities. Researchers have been measuring changes over time and comparing the information to similar data IPA gathered from the same markets in 2011 and 2012.

Contrary to reports, the research found no significant rise in food prices in affected areas as of November. However, the research found Sierra Leone’s urban areas have been particularly badly hit economically. Revenues were down by 40 percent for household heads working in non-farm enterprises, and the six-month failure rate of these businesses tripled.

Apart from measuring economic impacts, a team comprised of experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, IPA Sierra Leone and the International Medical Corps (IMC) is seeking to improve key elements of the contact tracing strategy in Sierra Leone.

Currently, contact tracers are using a paper-based reporting system, which requires phone calls and relies on pen and paper reporting to relay key information, both of which are slow and prone to error. Entering data on mobile devices – rather than on paper and by telephone – has the potential to improve contact tracing by increasing overall efficiency. Most importantly, an electronic system should allow symptomatic contacts to enter the health care system immediately.

This eight-month project evaluation will provide information to policymakers on the impact of using mobile technology for disease surveillance in an emergency setting. If it proves effective, the system could be rapidly expanded to improve the contact tracing process in Ebola-affected countries.

IPA is developing other studies as well. “We’re currently forming new partnerships and designing more evaluations that address key information gaps,” Tedesco said. “As data comes in, we’ll keep updating government entities and relief groups working on the frontlines of the crisis.”

Laura Burke is a communications consultant for Innovations for Poverty Action.


Health Care, Impact Assessment
healthcare technology, impact measurement, infectious diseases, technical assistance