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Principal Investigator: Melissa Parker, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

What did the study set out to achieve?

The Ebola epidemic in West African left 11,000+ dead and 17,000+ survivors struggling with devastating social, economic and medical consequences. The public health response faltered for a variety of reasons, especially social and cultural ones. To address these, a team of anthropologists with longstanding knowledge, partnerships and commitments in the ‘tri-border’ region of Sierra Leone-Guinea-Liberia mobilised in 2014 to bring real-time advice to the medical and humanitarian response as unprecedented and uncertain events unfolded.

The key deliverable was an online resource for local outbreak control teams to receive real-time advice from anthropologists and social scientists on how to build and implement context-appropriate interventions. The platform developed by this team hosts details on social, historical, political and economic issues that might influence the effectiveness of the interventions. The platform ( went on-line in October 2014 publishing all briefings entirely open-access. In the first 12 months there were 11,464 unique users from 166 countries who had accessed the website 18,167 times, viewing 50,585 pages and unique-downloading policy briefings 1,828 times. More than 35 briefings and guidelines written by/contributed to by Platform members on a wide range of subjects.

Dr Melissa Parker


Anthropological research is essential - there is a tendency in the humanitarian world to have top down interventions which too hastily set aside the social, political and cultural context and mistakenly encourage a one size fits all approach. Anthropologists need to reverse this trend and to have a central role in global health policy and practice. This seems to be happening in the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Dr Melissa Parker


It really has been a game changer. In the past Anthropology has been given a minor role in public health interventions. This time, from the outset, senior officials from the WHO, DFID, the UK Ministry of Defence and Ministers within Sierra Leone were pushing for Anthropological input to help identify the social, historical, political and economic issues that might influence the effectiveness of interventions seeking to prevent the transmission of Ebola

What were the key findings?

The initiative provided:

  1. Critical insights on how social scientists can interact effectively with policymakers to influence a humanitarian response, particularly by UK policy actors. The researchers found that the extent to which advice can make a significant contribution to policy is greatly facilitated by close proximity and interaction between ‘expert’ advisors and policymakers.
  2. Key insights to inform the response. Rapid research outputs focused on public health topics such as how to conduct safe burials and funerals, home-based care for Ebola patients, the psychosocial impact of Ebola on responders, and the influence of social networks in Sierra Leone on pathways of transmission.

A common theme of the findings was the need to involve local communities, in all their diversity, in respectful dialogue when designing and delivering responses; another was the importance of avoiding one-size-fits-all approaches but instead attuning humanitarian responses to political-economic, social and cultural contexts to increase te effectiveness and impact of responses to Ebola.

Ebola Response Anthropology Platform

Resource portal to enable rapid access to key resources in relation to the socio-cultural and political dimensions of the outbreak in West Africa

View Platform

What does this mean for policymakers and practitioners?

The Ebola Response Anthropology Platform enabled social scientists and outbreak control teams to interact to develop a co-ordinated, adaptive and iterative response to the Ebola outbreak. The research helped to build a more locally appropriate and socially informed outbreak response by providing clear, practical, real-time advice that engages with crucial socio-cultural and political dimensions of the outbreak. The research team also completed a number of rapid response fieldwork projects:

  • Evaluation of Community Care Centres, Sierra Leone: including policy briefing published in February 2015.
  • Data collation and evaluation of the Ebola response to date in Sierra Leone.
  • Sierra Leone diaspora communications.

After the epidemic, ERAP members established the broader Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP). SSHAP encourages effective, adaptive and contextually informed responses to health-related emergency crises, and contributes to expert groups at the UN and WHO. SSHAP has helped to shape more recent responses – including 2018 DRC Ebola and COVID-19 – and fed into the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee interim guidelines on humanitarian settings.

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Related Resources

Impact Case Study Communicable disease (including infectious disease outbreaks), Ebola, Research Uptake

Impact Case Study: Connecting anthropologists with local teams for context-specific humanitarian response

Article, Peer Reviewed Ebola

Engaging ‘communities’: anthropological insights from the West African Ebola epidemic

Peer Reviewed

Infectious disease: Tough choices to reduce Ebola transmission

Peer Reviewed Ebola

Ebola vaccines, evidentiary charisma and the rise of global health emergency research

Peer Reviewed

Ebola: myths, realities and structural violence

Peer Reviewed

Comparing social resistance to Ebola response between Sierra Leone and Guinea suggests explanations lie in political configurations not culture

Article, Peer Reviewed

Social pathways for Ebola Virus Disease in rural Sierra Leone, and some implications for containment

Peer Reviewed

Ebola: limitations of correcting misinformation

Peer Reviewed

Understanding social resistance to Ebola response in Guinea


Ebola, Running Ahead

Peer Reviewed

The Ebola crisis and post-2015 development

Article, Peer Reviewed

Epistemologies of Ebola: reflections on the experience of the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform

Peer Reviewed

Notes from Case Zero: Anthropology in the Times of Ebola

Latest Updates

Research Impact Case Study published

Aug 2023

This study was selected by the R2HC for our Impact Case Study series. The case study is now available to view online.


Press release

Jun 2016

Team wins first prize for social science response to Ebola


Briefing sheet

Apr 2016

A Game Changer: The Importance of Anthropology in Public Health Interventions


UK Parliamentary Inquiries on Ebola

Oct 2015

In late 2015, the team presented evidence to three UK parliamentary inquiries on Ebola: the International Development Committee, Science and Technology Committee, Africa All Party Parliamentary Group on Ebola, and investigating ‘community led health systems and the Ebola outbreak’.


LSHTM Seminars

Jan 2015

In early 2015 two seminars: ‘the end of Ebola?’ and ‘Anthropology and Ebola’ discussing this study, were hosted by LSHTM.


Team receives R2HC Rapid Response funding

Aug 2014

In August 2014, the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa was declared an International Health Emergency by WHO. In response, Elrha launched a rapid-response call to produce robust research findings that could inform the outbreak response and help to draw lessons for future outbreaks of Ebola and other communicable diseases.


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