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Cambodia’s religious leaders enlist in the fight against avian influenza

UNICEF Image: Cambodia: Bird flu
© UNICEF Cambodia/2006/Dy
UNICEF has collaborated with Cambodia’s Ministry of Health in a media campaign to reach more children with information about avian influenza.

By Maria Cecilia Dy

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, 28 November 2006 – Over the last six years, UNICEF has been collaborating closely with Cambodian monks, nuns and local elders in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now that collaboration is being harnessed to fight avian influenza.

Since September, religious leaders from all over Cambodia have been partaking in a series of orientation sessions on bird flu, sponsored by UNICEF in partnership with the Ministry of Cults and Religions.

A series of 70 sessions have been held in 12 provinces throughout the country. Close to 6,000 Buddhist monks and nuns have attended along with many Muslim and Christian leaders. As influential people, they are in a unique position to help educate others about bird flu.

“These religious leaders disseminate information through their visits to communities and when people visit temples,” said UNICEF Representative in Cambodia Rodney Hatfield.

‘We have to be patient’

Chief Buddhist monk at Han Chey pagoda, Bo Tang Chey, said it took him more than a year to make people understand the danger posed by HIV/AIDS – and he expects a similar reaction toward avian influenza.

“Sometimes it takes a tragedy before people are convinced of the gravity of the disease,” he said.

His fellow monk Ban Kok Sol said it is difficult to alter people’s behaviour when they do not fully understand why they should change. “As educators, we have to be patient and try our best to inform them,” he said. “When they understand the issue, they will act.”

UNICEF Image: Cambodia: Bird flu
© UNICEF Cambodia/2006/ Santepheap
Bo Tang Chey and Ban Kok Sol pose with bird flu awareness posters after an orientation session for Buddhist leaders in the Memot District of Cambodia’s Kampong Cham Province.

Source of livelihood

In Cambodia, raising poultry is an important source of income for many families, helping to pay school and medical fees, as well as buy food and fuel.

“We cannot stop people from raising poultry, as this is the only source of livelihood for some of them,” said Ministry of Cults and Religions official Chea Sareth. “We should ask them to practice good hygiene instead.”

A church official in Kampong Chhnang Province, Mok Channy, said she will use her community outreach programme to reverse misconceptions about how bird flu is transmitted. “Due to their poor living conditions, people still eat sick or dead chicken,” she noted.

Intensifying the campaign

Following the bird flu-related deaths of two Cambodian children earlier this year, UNICEF collaborated with the Ministry of Health to intensify its existing media campaign. Information about avian influenza is now reaching more and more children. Already, 10 television and radio spots have been broadcast, with four more scheduled to be aired in December.

“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,” said a nine-year-old schoolgirl in Stung Treng Province.

Mr. Hatfield explained that poultry-rearing tasks are often given to children, putting them at great risk of becoming infected with the avian influenza virus, known as H5N1. “People have to be well informed to avoid the virus,” he said. “We cannot have dying children as an indicator of the presence of the disease.”



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