West African artists are using a surprising weapon in the fight against the spread of the deadly Ebola virus: pop music.

The hemorrhagic fever has killed more than 4,000 people mainly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea since March. And estimates warn that as many 1.4 million people could become infected by early next year without a massive intervention.

Aid workers who've come up against roadblocks like illiteracy, poverty and skepticism are getting a boost from local artists who are lacing popular music with simple lifesaving advice. 

Adolphus Scott

UNICEF communication specialist Adolphus Scott helped create the song Ebola Is Real, which has become the hottest track on Liberian radio. (Ahmed Jallanzo/Reuters)

Adolphus Scott, a Liberian communication specialist for UNICEF, teamed with local artists to release the song Ebola Is Real.

The track, which helps dispel rumours that the virus is a political scam, has become the No. 1 song on Liberian radio.

Its lyrics alert listeners, saying "it's time to protect yourself, protect your family, protect your community." 

"Here in Liberia, we rely heavily on radio," Scott said in a recent interview with CBC's Jian Ghomeshi, host of the radio show Q

"Internet is not as big here. So if you want to send out a message really quick, it's through the radio."

The message has been so pervasive, it's in rotation on more than 50 stations across Liberia, and can be heard on cellphone ring tones throughout the country.

The next step is to translate the song into traditional languages to reach a wider non-English-speaking audience in the country.

Inspired by the outbreak

Dancehalls in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, are thumping with the song Ebola in Town. The chart-topping track was recorded by Liberia-based artists Shadow and Kuzzy of 2 Kings.

The reggae-infused rhythm carries a more ominous message than the government-vetted lyrics of UNICEF's Ebola Is Real.

"Ebola is very wicked," warns the vocalist. "It can kill you quick quick / Be careful how you shaking hands-o / Be careful who you touch."

In neighbouring Nigeria, The Stop Ebola Virus Campaign Song focuses on the importance of personal hygiene in stopping the spread.

It includes a heart-tugging sample of a child’s voice urging "Daddy, wash your hands every time with soap and water."

In Senegal, where there are no reported active cases of the virus, rapper Xuman achieved a hit song with his track Ebola est là (Ebola Is Here).

The song — a parody of Rihanna's Umbrella — warns, "The disease is among our neighbours, Liberians and Guineans."

It's not clear how effective these songs have been at saving lives, but their messages are proving to be pervasive.

UNICEF's Scott said there has been a reduction of Ebola cases in one provincial area of Liberia, but he warns that more foot soldiers are needed to spread the message of awareness and prevention.

"I see this Ebola outbreak is like a guerrilla-style war that has been waged in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea by microorganisms. We are under serious attack."