February 2015


Students will:

  • Explore the structure of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its role in the Ebola epidemic in West Africa
  • Discuss challenges the WHO has faced in responding to the Ebola outbreak
  • Identify what resources are needed to bring the epidemic under control
  • Create a poster to help the WHO get more people involved in the effort to stop the Ebola epidemic


YouTube video
WHO responds to Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa. Be sure to preview the video to make sure it is appropriate for your classroom.

WHO’s latest statistics on the scale of the outbreak.

Ebola Deeply’s page on the basics of the Ebola outbreak. This webpage provides information about the virus itself, how it spreads, symptoms of the disease, treatment options, and more.

Jpg file
WHO’s logo. Students may find this useful in creating their posters.

Blog post from the Washington Post on the role social scientists can play in understanding and working to end international health crises.


Constitution of the World Health Organization

WHO: Background Information

Ebola and the Struggle to Respond


A Call to Action

Monitoring the Situation

Required Reading

Ask students to read “Constitution of the World Health Organization” and answer the accompanying questions on the handout, “WHO: Background Information” as homework before doing the activity in class. Alternatively, students could read the article in small groups and answer questions with their classmates at the beginning of the class period.

Note: It may be useful to have art supplies (colored pencils, construction paper, etc.) available for students if possible.

In the Classroom

Introducing the WHO

Ask students what they know about the WHO. What is the WHO and who are its members? What are its goals? What organization is it a part of? What other organizations does it work with? Review the homework with the class and address any questions students have about the WHO. It may also be useful to clarify some of the language used in the homework, like “state,” “communicable disease,” “epidemic,” and “endemic” and to explain that the WHO has 194 member states.

Considering the Ebola Epidemic in West Africa

Explain to students that the WHO has been involved in working to control the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Show the short video “WHO responds to Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa” and be sure students are clear that between April 2014 (when the video was created) and February 2015, the epidemic has grown to more than 22,000 cases and more than 9,000 deaths. After showing the video, ask students what they know about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. What is Ebola virus disease? Which countries have been hardest hit by the outbreak? How has the WHO responded to the outbreak? Who has the WHO worked with? What are the WHO and its partners doing to try to bring the epidemic under control?

Note: The video was produced in April 2014. As a result, its information about the scale of the outbreak and which countries are being affected is out-of-date. For up-to-date information, see the WHO’s latest statistics. It may also be useful to refer to Ebola Deeply’s page on the basics of the Ebola outbreak.

Working in Groups

Explain to the class that they will now consider the international response to Ebola and some of the reasons why it has not been successful in controlling the epidemic. Divide the class into three groups. Distribute one article from “Ebola and the Struggle to Respond” and its associated “Questions” handout to each group. Instruct students to read their assigned article and complete the questions on the handout together with their group. Tell students that they should be prepared to give a three to four minute presentation summarizing their article to the class.

Sharing New Perspectives

Have students in each group present to the class a three to four minute summary of the article they read. After each group has presented, ask students if they noticed any similarities or differences among the articles presented. Why is an organization like the WHO necessary? Where has the global community failed in its response to Ebola? What kinds of things does the WHO need to effectively control the Ebola outbreak that it hasn’t had (e.g. money, staff, supplies, authority, etc.)? Now that the Ebola outbreak has grown into a major epidemic, what do students think can and should be done? What role should the WHO play? What role should individual countries play (both those most hard-hit by the outbreak and those less directly affected)?

Creating a Call to Action

Explain that students will now have the opportunity to create a poster for the WHO to send out to its partners and supporters with the goal of getting more people and organizations involved in the effort to stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa. Lead the class in a brief brainstorm about the many potential roles people and organizations could play in working to control the outbreak (e.g. community health educators and volunteers, doctors to work in Ebola treatment centers, scientists to work towards an Ebola vaccine, donors to send money and/or supplies, researchers to study where the outbreak is spreading, individual country governments, etc.).

After the class has generated a range of ideas, divide the class into groups so that each group has at least one student who read Source A, one who read Source B, and one who read Source C from “Ebola and the Struggle to Respond.” Distribute “A Call to Action” and tell students they should work with their groups to complete the handout and create a poster for the WHO that they will present to the class. Remind students that each group’s poster should be a call to action that the WHO sends to its partners and supporters (whether individuals or organizations) to fill one specific role they think is necessary in fighting the Ebola epidemic.

Note: Students may find it useful to have access to this jpg file of the WHO’s logo in creating their poster. You may also choose to broaden this assignment beyond a poster. Other options could include writing a song, creating a video, writing a one-page brief to policy makers, designing a social media campaign, etc.

Closing Discussion

After students complete “A Call to Action,” invite each group to present their poster to the class. How did each group choose their target audience? How did they make their call to action appealing to this audience? What did they ask of their audience and why? How did they visually convey their message?

After the presentations, discuss as a class how students’ approaches to creating a call to action might have changed if they were addressing a different health concern (e.g. malnutrition, heart disease, malaria, maternal health). Invite students to consider how other people or organizations could have different roles and require different approaches. What might be the role of anthropologists or political scientists? (It may be helpful to point out that a key role of anthropologists in this crisis has been bridging cultural gaps between local communities and health specialists coming from other countries and societies.) Women’s or children’s organizations? What kinds of resources and assistance might they need?

Note: This blog post from the Washington Post provides a useful overview of the roles anthropologists, political scientists, and other social scientists can play in understanding and working to end international health crises. It may be helpful if you would like additional background on this topic before facilitating the closing discussion in class.

Extra Challenges

Encourage students to explore local actions being taken to help control the Ebola epidemic. Students could create a poster to raise awareness of ways members of their communities are getting involved in efforts to stop the spread of Ebola, interview leaders of NGOs in their city or town about the work their organizations are doing, or organize a fundraiser or teach-in at their school.

Students could monitor the Ebola epidemic in the news for eight weeks with the “Monitoring the Situation” handout. After completing the worksheet, invite students to re-examine their calls to action. Is there anything they would change, given new developments? How might the fact that this is a long-lasting issue affect the work or structure of the WHO? The amount of media attention focused on the Ebola epidemic? Donors’ interests and the amount of resources available for fighting the epidemic? Other economic and social concerns in affected countries?


We wish to thank the following researchers for their valuable feedback on this lesson:

Adia Benton
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Northwestern University

Daniel Jordan Smith
Professor and Chair of Anthropology
Brown University

Additional Resources on the World Health Organization

WHO Website

WHO—YouTube Channel

New York Times—Page on the World Health Organization

The Lancet—A brief history of the World Health Organization

Additional Resources on Ebola

WHO—Page on Ebola

WHO—Ebola Response Roadmap Situation Report Interactive Map Journal

CDC—Page on Ebola

Ebola Deeply

Science and Science Translational Medicine—Collection of news and research articles on Ebola

Doctors Without Borders—Page on Ebola

BBC—Page on Ebola

New York Times—Page on Ebola

Al Jazeera—Page on Ebola

New York Times—Learning From Disaster: Exploring the Ebola Epidemic

Monkey Cage Blog, Washington Post—5 things you should read

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