Why Ebola is Making Education More Important than Ever

As the world has been captivated by the renewed outbreak of the Ebola virus, one topic has been underrepresented amidst growing concerns. Talks of quarantines, medical treatment and myths continue, but why aren’t more people talking about education?

At buildOn, we think that, beyond medical interventions, the best way to combat a public health priority like Ebola is, as health experts put it, with widespread education not panic.

Education is crucial when it comes to sharing accurate information about the virus. It is also important to consider the struggling education systems in areas where Ebola is widespread. Ebola-affected communities offer striking similarities to those where buildOn works, like limited infrastructure, low literacy rates and increasingly challenged economies.

Until late last year, there was no presence of the virus in the West African countries where buildOn works. In November, six people reportedly died from the virus in Mali. Yet, as of mid-December, the country was declared likely to be Ebola-free. As Mali works to combat its small Ebola outbreak, we are reminded that if something like Ebola were to continue spreading further, both now or in the future, those most equipped to fight the outbreak would be educated citizens.

We are continuing to build schools in our partner countries in West Africa while monitoring the outbreak’s possible spread to better ensure the safety of our staff and community members.

At home, students in buildOn’s youth service programs are also learning about the realities of the Ebola outbreak.

“With an issue like Ebola that’s rightfully topical right now, it felt important to cover because of the sheer magnitude of its global impact. The outbreak’s proximity to some of our partner countries made the lesson easier to illustrate for our students familiar with the Trek for Knowledge program,” Leah Ouellet, a buildOn program coordinator at Western International High School in Detroit, says.

By integrating lessons such as one on Ebola into her programs, Leah leads students to be more aware and consider how they can make change and raise awareness about local and global issues. For example, they thought about the active roles volunteers and donations play in combatting the crisis as examples of service that people participate in outside of buildOn. They discussed how easy it can be to gather information about health issues when living in urban areas in the United States, something that’s not the reality for people in rural communities abroad.

“I had my students watch a video about a community in Liberia who continued to eat and sell bush meat long after the government issued a warning about Ebola being spread that way. One of my students immediately raised her hand after the video and said she understood why they wouldn’t stop because, for a lot of people their livelihood was selling bush meat, and that it was a tradition in their family that predated the outbreak,” Leah said about the lesson.

She tied this example back to the student’s own day-to-day realities.

“A lot of students drew the connection to their parents not wanting them to be vaccinated or not wanting to change their diets based on doctor recommendations. It was an important lesson for students to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the people experiencing the terror and heartbreak of the disease,” she said.


Since March 2013, more than 21,600 people have contracted Ebola, making this the largest outbreak on record. More than 8,200 people have died from the disease, the majority in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Nigeria reported a handful of cases, but there have been no new cases since August. Senegal report just one case and was declared Ebola-free in mid-October.

Approximately 25 cases combined have been treated in Europe and the United States, often the result of medical professionals who returned to their home countries after working in the affected region. NPR reported that the chances of an individual contracting Ebola in the United States of America are 1 in 13.3 million.


1) Youth are being kept out of school as a result of the outbreak.

This is one scary side effect. 

In Liberia, for example, schools were shuttered in July and over 1.4 million children are currently out of school as a result of the outbreak. Reportedly, Liberian teachers and community members are being trained by UNICEF to help educate communities about Ebola prevention, showing how important education and educators are to ending the crisis. In Sierra Leone, some youth learn by radio while their schools are closed. But even if they manage to learn from these interventions, students face more dangers when not in school, such as sexual assault. Often, school is the safest place for young people, especially girls.

In countries with poor infrastructure and challenging economic climates, education plays a large role in empowering individuals to take control of their futures. The more time spent out of school increases the risk that students will never go back even when the outbreak is contained.

2) If populations have greater access to education, they will be more prepared for future outbreaks and combatting present health risks. 

This is one reason why buildOn is increasingly committed to providing educational opportunities to the rural communities where we work in Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Often, rural villages are the last to learn how to protect themselves from something like Ebola. Because of stigma or lack of knowledge all together, people do not necessarily get help for themselves or their family members until it is too late. Early information sharing interventions would keep the disease from spreading and increase the effectiveness of getting treatment for those who need it the most.

Many communities where buildOn works are already impacted by endemic conditions like HIV/AIDS and malaria. People who have access to education are more likely to understand how diseases spread and how to protect themselves. Even more simply, education also helps communities have better business practices. For example, if a small-scale farmer attended school, he is likely equipped with skills that help him save money. In turn, if he has money saved, the cost of medical care is less of a burden and he is more likely to seek treatment quickly in a medical emergency. Thus, investing in education for youth and adult literacy in these countries can have health benefits in the immediate reality and into the future.

3) Raising awareness is essential for our global community. 

It is easy to feel helpless about the spread of Ebola, but as people learn accurate information, overall awareness is improved. When equipped with better knowledge, concerned citizens can actively invest in organizations doing medical relief work or, those like buildOn, that support educational initiatives for at-risk communities. Having a better understanding of the facts regarding the virus reduces stigma and encourages positive conversations around combatting global challenges.

It is important to remember that while communities affected by Ebola are found across the world, those impacted are men, women and children with feelings and futures, not simply a health statistic.