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Turkey: Communicating about bird flu

© UNICEF Turkey 2006 Oguz Sagdic
Making a point about bird flu

By Bernard Kennedy for UNICEF

A dozen girls, most of them in their teens, are occupying a circle of plastic chairs in the sparse but functional classroom of the multi-Purpose Social Centre in Yakubiye neighbourhood, Sanliurfa, Southeast Turkey.

The Centre is one of around 40 in the region that operate under the umbrella of the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), the government's long-running scheme for the economic and social development of the Euphrates and Tigris basins. Staffed mostly by volunteers, the centres provide local girls -- many of them out of school -- with the chance to learn and socialise. They offer courses in literacy, health, home economics and arts and crafts, as well as picnics and trips to the cinema.

But today there is only one topic of conversation -- the bird flu virus that has been sweeping Turkey in recent weeks, and which killed four children in January.

Sumru Kutlu, from UNICEF, is trying to find out how much these girls know about protecting themselves and their families. The ideas and comments come thick and fast -- some of them accurate, some less so:

"It's a disease which comes from chickens."

"And other birds."

"A lot of people have got ill, and some of them have died."

"It's catching."

"It passes from chicken to chicken, and people to people."

"It's mainly in the villages where they keep chickens at home."

Most of the girls have learned about bird flu from television and from neighbourhood conversations. But when it comes to the precautions needed, they are divided. Some believe they should not eat chicken or eggs at all. Not surprisingly, large-scale poultry farmers across the country have reported a dramatic fall in demand.

"A midwife who visited us told us not to eat chicken, but we have eaten it and nothing has happened." says one young woman.

"Last night the Prime Minister ate chicken on TV," responds another. "So now we know that we can eat it."

None of the girls are aware that you can eat chicken if you cook it thoroughly at a hig heat. None of them mention the urgency of seeking medical help if they develop severe flu symptoms and have recently had contact with sick or dead birds. Nor are they aware of the importance of reporting sick or dead birds or the need to wash hands thoroughly and frequently with soap and water.

© UNICEF Turkey 2006 Oguz Sagdic
The smiles of understanding

Getting the message across

"Have any of you seen this,"  asks Kutlu, holding up a leaflet about bird flu from the provincial Directorate of Health. Some 150,000 copies of the leaflet have been distributed, especially at mosques during the recent religious holidays. Only Zeynep, aged 17, has seen it.

"If they hand it out at mosques," says Nafile, aged 18, "fathers might not tell their wives and daughters."

"They should talk about it in schools," suggests another Zeynep, aged 15.

Kutlu starts to test some communication materials developed by UNICEF. She explains the symptoms of bird flu and the precautions to be taken. She then asks the girls what they think is the best way to reach others, including girls who are at home all day, those who live in the most remote communities and those who are illiterate or who have difficulty understanding Turkish.

"I think if I tell my friends about it, and they tell somebody else, then everybody will learn, " argues Fatma, aged 12.

Hanim, aged 12, is more pessimistic: "Our neighbours have a coop full of chickens and they are still wandering about the neighbourhood, and the kids are playing with the chicks. We told them about it but they didn't believe us. They said it was none of our business."

Behaviour to save lives

Promoting life-saving behaviour is more difficult than it sounds. Media coverage of issues like bird flu can be unhelpful, and public information campaigns may not always have the intended effect. Trying to give too many message -- covering everything -- can be confusing. It is important that all those in authority speak with one voice. 

At the same time, different styles and channels of communication may be needed to reach people in difference places or from different social and cultural backgrounds.  

The girls and women say that they want to hear messages from trusted sources, such as local doctors. This kind of information is vital for UNICEF which, under the aegis of the Government's Child Intersectoral Boar, has brought together relevant government ministries, the national broadcaster, UN organisations, the Turkish Red Cresent and partner NGOs to develop an integrated communication strategy for avian influenza prevention and containment.

Existing networks, such as the girls' education volunteer network, will help to put the strategy into practice. Also under development, in conjunction with the Ministry of National Education (MoNE), is a teacher-training package that includes games to promote good hygiene.

For more information:

Sema Hosta, Communication Officer, UNICEF Turkey. Tel :(+90 312) 454 1000. email: shosta@unicef.org 

 

 
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