Background: The role of community health workers (CHWs) in the West Africa Ebola outbreak has been highlighted to advocate for increasing numbers of CHWs globally to build resilience, strengthen health systems, and provide emergency response capacity. However, the roles CHWs played, the challenges they faced, and their effectiveness during the outbreak are not well documented. This study assessed the impact of Ebola on community-based maternal, newborn, and child health (MNCH) services, documented the contribution of CHWs and other community-based actors to the Ebola response, and identified lessons learned to strengthen resilience in future emergencies.
Methods: This mixed methods study was conducted in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, with data collected in four Ebola-affected districts of each country. Qualitative data were collected through in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with stakeholders at national, district, and community levels. Quantitative program data were used to assess trends in delivery of community-based MNCH services.
Results: There was a sharp decline in MNCH service provision due to weak service delivery, confusion over policy, and the overwhelming nature of the outbreak. However, many CHWs remained active in their communities and were willing to continue providing services. When CHWs received clear directives and were supported, service provision rebounded. Although CHWs faced mistrust and hostility from community members because of their linkages to health facilities, the relationship between CHWs and communities proved resilient over time, and CHWs were more effectively able to carry out Ebola-related activities than outsiders. Traditional birth attendants, community health committees, community leaders, and traditional healers also played important roles, despite a lack of formal engagement or support. Service delivery weaknesses, especially related to supply chain and supervision, limited the effectiveness of community health services before, during, and after the outbreak.
Conclusions: CHWs and other community-level actors played important roles during the Ebola outbreak. However, maintenance of primary care services and the Ebola response were hampered because community actors were engaged late in the response and did not receive sufficient support. In the future, communities should be placed at the forefront of emergency preparedness and response plans and they must be adequately supported to strengthen service delivery.
- Child, Preschool
- Community Health Workers
- Disease Outbreaks/prevention & control
- Focus Groups
- Hemorrhagic Fever, Ebola/epidemiology
- Infant, Newborn
- Maternal-Child Health Services/organization & administration
- Professional Role
- Qualitative Research
- Sierra Leone/epidemiology