How 'Dumb Phones' Can Help Stop The Spread Of Ebola

03/05/2015 07:12 pm ET | Updated Mar 06, 2015

A basic cell phone may not be able to snap the best selfies, but it can be a vital tool in preventing the spread of deadly viruses.

In Ebola-stricken West Africa -- a region where a lack of resources makes spreading information more challenging -- UNICEF is helping young people stay safe through its U-Report initiative.

The free social tool, accessible through any cell phone that can make calls and send texts, lets users voice opinions on issues affecting their community. Launched in May 2011 in Uganda, U-Report has been used to spread information on various topics, like education, sanitation, youth unemployment and HIV/AIDS. But more recently it's been utilized in the fight against Ebola in Liberia.

After a user gets U-Report by texting "join" to a short code, UNICEF sends them a weekly poll asking for their opinion on a given issue, the organization said in a statement. Because users report their age, gender and location upon signing up, the aid organization can analyze their responses to better understand how Ebola and other issues are being perceived by community members of different demographics.

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Users can view how polls were answered by fellow participants, and the information-sharing can benefit those who may lack knowledge on a specific topic.

"[If] you ask a question, 'How do you feel about Ebola?', 'Do you believe that Ebola is real?' If [others] believe that Ebola is real, they will reply," U-Report user Jessica said of how the tool is helping her community. "So those who are still doubting that Ebola is not real, or not in West Point, [or] Ebola is not in Monrovia, they should clear that notion from their head."

One poll question posted on U-Report's website, for example, asked respondents, "Where should a child who lost parents because of Ebola stay?" Users could choose from "A) Relatives home B) Foster family C) Orphanage, D) Alone" as possible answers. "Relatives home" was the answer chosen by 55 percent of users.

Questions are asked in ways that make sense to users in order to encourage participation and accuracy. UNICEF gathers young people before developing new reports in order to word questions in a way that will resonate with users.

The responses are also benefiting governing bodies that help those in need. U-Report results are publicized each month and made available for media outlets and national leaders, and the data can help better humanitarian assistance.

"A ministry of health could use U-report information to understand if service delivery issues regarding malaria drugs are being perceptibly addressed in the court of community opinion," UNICEF said in a statement.

More than 550,000 young people in 12 countries are using the social tool, UNICEF told The Huffington Post, with about 424,000 users in Nigeria and Uganda alone. The organization said users in both countries utilized U-Report to learn about signs, prevention and treatment of Ebola when the virus began spreading last year.

UNICEF aims to have the tool available in about 20 countries with more than 1 million young people by the end of this year.

The spread of Ebola has slowed dramatically in recent months. On Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced Liberia released its last Ebola patient from medical care after experiencing a week free of new infections, BBC News reported.

Still, the virus caused devastation there, as well as in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Nearly 10,000 people have died, and West Africa has taken the brunt of the epidemic. While Guinea and Sierra Leone have also seen significant progress curbing infection rates, WHO said there were 132 new cases in the two countries in the week ending March 1.

"We look at the three countries as really a single country," Gregory Hartl, a spokesperson for WHO, told BBC News. "So while it's good news that Liberia itself has no new cases, the populations are so mobile in that region that there could easily be re-importations of cases. We have to get down to zero in all three countries before we can consider this thing beaten."

CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to clarify how users access the tool.

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