This literature review compared epidemiological research (EPI) with qualitative social and behavioural science research (SBS) published during the West African Ebola epidemic. 236 EPI and 171 SBS studies were assessed to see how the priorities of different disciplines affected research conducted during the Ebola outbreak response.

The authors argue that during the Ebola outbreak, EPI researchers were unable to capture the complex sociocultural conditions and details of the health systems operating in Ebola-affected countries, while SBS researchers were unable to translate their knowledge of local conditions into epidemiologically-relevant insights. They argue that in particular, EPI models did not integrate community-based behaviour changes sufficiently. Based on the literature review, the authors developed a roadmap to facilitate greater integration between EPI and SBS research for epidemic preparedness and response.

Key priorities in this roadmap include the following:

  • Developing capacity to systematically quantify sociocultural variables, so that they can be effectively integrated into EPI models

  • Establishing interdisciplinary collaborations between EPI and SBS researchers

  • Creating qualitative indicators and preparing them for use so they can be rapidly deployed during epidemics

  • Developing new techniques for modeling social mobilisation and community engagement

  • Prioritising good data and complex analyses early in emergencies

  • Learning from past experiences

The authors found that to ensure the rapid, effective, targeted, and locally sensitive allocation of epidemic response measures, future epidemic events require better preparation, collaboration, and real-time integration of EPI and social science capabilities. To justify these findings, the authors state that there are consequences for failing to advance this agenda. Because EPI and SBS research were not aligned during the West Africa Ebola epidemic, questions about what happened, what worked and did not work, who was responsible and who was affected, and how or whether the epidemic was affected by the local and international response will likely remain unanswered.

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