Cambodia’s religious leaders mobilized in the fight against avian flu
By Maria Cecilia Dy
Phnom Penh, Cambodia - UNICEF and the Ministry of Cults and Religions held this week the last of a series of orientation sessions for religious leaders about avian flu. In all, 70 sessions were held in 12 provinces since September with close to 6,000 Buddhist monks and nuns from 2,600 pagodas, and Muslim and Christian leaders.
UNICEF’s close collaboration with monks, nuns and local elders who have special ties with temples for the prevention and care of HIV/AIDS during the last six years is being harnessed in the fight against a new equally lethal disease – avian influenza. “UNICEF was able to tap into the extensive network of religious and community leaders already involved in HIV care and support activities to rapidly disseminate avian influenza-related messages,” said Rodney Hatfield, UNICEF Representative. “These religious leaders disseminate information through their visits to communities and on the occasion of major religious events when people visit temples. Commanding high respect, the word of monks and other religious leaders is taken very seriously and well-accepted in Khmer society,” he added.
Bo Tang Chey, chief Buddhist monk at Han Chey pagoda and deputy head of Kampong Siem district in Kampong Cham Province, said it took him more than a year to make people understand the danger posed by HIV/AIDS. “Sometimes, it takes a tragedy before people are convinced of the gravity of the disease.” He expects similar reaction toward avian influenza.
His fellow monk Ban Kok Sol finds it hard to change people’s behaviour if they do not understand the reason behind it. “As educators, we have to be patient and try our best to inform them so that when they understand the issue, they will act. Then it is easy to change their behaviour.”
Sen Aisa, 60, one of the two women leaders in a Muslim community invited to attend the orientation session held in her village in Kampong Cham Province last week, said that was the first time she ever heard about bird flu. “I was scared because I have six chickens in my backyard,” she said. In the past, Aisa used to eat sick chicken. After hearing about how dangerous bird flu is, she is not going to cook sick chicken anymore.
Children living in her village, however, have heard of avian flu from television before. Most of them have chickens at home and are involved in poultry-raising. They said now they wash their hands after feeding poultry and have stopped playing with chickens. They bury dead chickens and never eat them because they are afraid of catching bird flu.
In Cambodia, selling and trading poultry/eggs bring supplementary income to families for paying school fees, medical fees, reimbursing loans, buying food and fuel. Chea Sareth, a Ministry of Cults and Religions official in the province said “we cannot stop people from raising poultry as this is the only source of livelihood for some of them. We should ask them to practice good hygiene instead.”
Mok Channy, 49, a Church official in a nearby province of Kampong Chhnang, said she will use her community outreach programme to tell people about how bird flu is transmitted because there is a lot of misconception. “Due to their poor living conditions, people still eat sick or dead chicken. This behaviour should change.”
In collaboration with the Ministry of Health, UNICEF intensified its mass media campaign following the deaths of two children aged three and 12 in March and April this year. Both had direct contact with diseased or dead poultry in rural areas.
The mass media campaign is reaching more and more children. Sok Ny, a nine-year-old girl living in a village outside Phnom Penh said "I won’t play or touch sick or dead chicken. I am afraid of getting bird flu. I will bury dead chicken and cover it with ash. I won't eat dead chicken. I watch TV and listen to the radio and remember about it." A nine-year-old schoolgirl in Stung Treng Province said “I don’t play with chickens anymore because I heard from the radio that they are not toys to play with and can infect you with bird flu.”
“The tasks related to rearing poultry are often given to children in Cambodia as many homes own a few birds. That puts them at greatest risk of becoming infected with the H5N1 virus,” said Rodney Hatfield. “People have to be well-informed to avoid the virus, we cannot have dying children as an indicator of the presence of the disease,” he added.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledged the impact of TV spots during his speech at the International Children’s Day celebration on the first of June when he told a gathering that the TV spot on hand washing has encouraged many people to practice better personal hygiene.
At the launching of the school kit on avian flu last October, Mr. Norio Maruyama, Minister Counsellor of the Embassy of Japan said that they are satisfied with what have been done by UNICEF and the Government of Cambodia. “It is a good example of cooperation. The political will from Cambodian government on the one hand and efforts by UNICEF on the other result in a lot of achievements in a very short span of time.” The Government of Japan contributed USD 1.55 million to UNICEF in support of its work in Cambodia to help prevent the spread of avian influenza. The Government of Australia has also made a sizeable contribution in 2006.