Soap and water save lives

Children wash their hands in Clara Town, a township to the north of Liberia's capital. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam
Children wash their hands in Clara Town, a township to the north of Liberia's capital. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

When the deadly Ebola epidemic struck in 2014, people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea were on the front lines. Tens of thousands were infected, and many lost their lives.

Oxfam’s response to the Ebola outbreak focused on prevention—on keeping health workers safe by providing critical supplies and equipment, and on making sure everyday people had the knowledge they needed to protect their families and communities.

In many areas, access to clean water and soap helped prevent the spread of Ebola. Oxfam provided water supplies at some of the treatment and isolation centers and established hand-washing facilities in public areas. We distributed hygiene kits—including soap and bleach—to communities at risk, and relied on trained health workers to help spread the word.

“We make sure we tell even the kids, after playing, you wash hands with soap and water,” says Alima Jamboria, a community health worker in Sierra Leone’s Freetown. “I have love for the community. They do listen to me and your relationship with the people is very, very important.”

In May 2015, Liberia announced good news: The country was free of the deadly disease—about 12 months after Oxfam first launched an emergency response to tackle the outbreak in West Africa.

“Liberia has worked hard to reach this point and the nation and its people should take credit for how they dealt with this terrible outbreak,” said Mamudu Salifu, Oxfam’s country director in Liberia. “The government recognized early on that working with ordinary people, rather than forcing health measures on them, would ease fears and mistrust around Ebola. Ensuring that communities play a leading role has been an essential factor in stopping the spread.”