The projects were awarded money as part of an emergency call issued in August for research on Ebola supported by the Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) fund, launched last year.
The £1.34 million (US$2.1 million) jointly handed to the projects is dwarfed by the €1 billion (more than US$1.2 billion) pledged by European leaders in October for medical care and assistance in affected countries. It is also less than US$5.7 million promised last week by philanthropic organisation the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aimed at increasing production of experimental Ebola treatments in these countries.
But it represents an important shift in how Ebola is tackled, according to Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar.
“Up until now, support for the Ebola outbreak has focused on improving public health measures by increasing facilities and equipment, and fast tracking vaccine and drug trials,” he says. “However, without knowledge and understanding of local communities this life-saving work can often fail.”
“You need to engage local people and tailor biomedical interventions into a form that is acceptable to them.”
Melissa Parker, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Since the first cases were reported in March, the outbreak has quickly spiralled out of control: the latest count from the WHO stands at 15,351 victims with 5,459 deaths in eight countries.
Failing public health systems are certainly partly to blame for the crisis, but social factors including local burial rituals and suspicions about foreign health workers may also be exacerbating it.
Keen to avoid these problems, the team behind one of the funded projects — the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform — plans to bring social sciences to the front line.
By using anthropological research on beliefs about how diseases are spread or how care is provided to the sick, for instance, the team believes that Ebola medical responses can avoid clashing with local customs.
“You need to engage local people and tailor biomedical interventions into a form that is acceptable to them,” says team leader Melissa Parker, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom.
Two of the other newly funded studies will model Ebola’s spread by examining cases and deaths across the region and analysing how and where people are moving about.
Another one will improve the training of local health workers and help them to follow safety procedures. The final grant could save patients’ lives by developing a portable tool that would diagnose Ebola cases within 40 minutes.
Ros Tamming, the chief health advisor of food security charity Concern Worldwide, thinks this device could be invaluable if it can be made cheaply enough to become widespread.
But the modelling studies cover an issue already being tackled by the WHO among others, while the behaviour change studies will be tough to scale up in any meaningful way, she says. These projects, she believes, may have a useful but ultimately limited impact.