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Educating Against Ebola

LONDON – This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners, Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, who will collect their award in Oslo on Wednesday, have joined an urgent appeal to create safe schools in the three countries most affected by the ongoing Ebola outbreak: Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. With thousands of schools closed in an effort to stem the spread of the virus, five million boys and girls have been left without any means of advancing their education. But a new investigation of Ebola, conducted by education experts and health professionals with the support of the Global Business Coalition for Education, has found that reopening “safe schools” could be a far more effective way to combat the disease.

The resulting report, produced in collaboration with A World At School, identifies the components of the safe schools of the future: adequate public-health training for teachers, twice-daily body-temperature checks for children, education programs on health and Ebola transmission, and hearty, nutrient-rich meals to build up children’s resistance. Given the affordability of these measures, there is no excuse to delay implementation.

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The report also calls upon policymakers to integrate health and education policy more closely. That would not only help to end the current epidemic; it would also aid in the fight against poverty and thus help to prevent the emergence of epidemics in the future.

Nine months and more than 6,000 deaths since the Ebola outbreak began, it is clear that the current approach is not working. Taking young people out of school will only make things worse, as it triggers a vicious spiral, with boys and girls congregating in the streets or other public places where infection can easily spread. This outcome would directly contradict the public-health rationale for closing schools.

Of course, not all schools can be reopened just yet; those at the epicenter of affected areas should remain shuttered until Ebola is brought under control. But that process would be much faster if children in the rest of the country were attending a school where they were checked regularly for infection and learned how to protect their health and that of their communities.

Indeed, schools have already proved their usefulness during public-health crises. During the 2002-2004 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), in Asia, twice-daily temperature checks conducted by teachers made a clear and immediate contribution to stopping the spread of the disease. And, in the United States, schools play a central role in preventing flu transmission, averting an estimated 63 million cases annually.

During the current crisis, Nigeria, a country that has been widely praised for its rapid and effective response to Ebola within its borders, recognized its schools’ potential to contribute to the fight against the disease. The federal government ordered all state education ministries to ensure that health professionals trained at least two members of staff in every school to recognize and respond to Ebola.

More countries should follow Nigeria’s example. That is what the African business community, led by the well-known philanthropists Strive Masiyiwa and Aliko Dangote, wants: the rapid, responsible reopening of safe schools that provide health education.

But the argument for reopening schools extends beyond stopping Ebola. It is well documented that the longer children in the region are forced to stay out of school, for whatever reason, the less likely they are to return. After one year away, less than half return to complete their education. Those who do not are often victims of their family’s decision to put them to work or marry them off as child brides.

The case for transforming West Africa’s closed schools into open, safe schools is strong. Indeed, it has the backing of virtually all international agencies.

All that is needed now is financing. Though finding the money is always a challenge, there is no better incentive than ensuring that five million people do not continue to miss out on their chance to receive an education.

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The international community must apply the lessons of the Ebola epidemic – the importance of early preventive action, strengthening health-care systems’ capacity, providing adequate health education, and combining the expertise of health and education professionals – now and in the future. Most important, we should take education and health experts’ advice and create safe schools where children can not only learn how to keep themselves and their communities healthy, but also gain a chance at a better future.

Ebola has taken enough from West Africans. It should not be allowed to take their educations, too.