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Hygiene education campaign battles spread of avian influenza in Egypt

© UNICEF Egypt/2007
Egyptian health worker Intisar Abdel Aleem uses a flip chart to explain the hygiene measures needed to avoid avian influenza infection.

By Simon Ingram

A 15-year-old girl from Cairo has become the 34th person in Egypt to be diagnosed with bird flu, according to media reports; to date, 13 Egyptians have died from the virus. Here is an update on Egypt’s efforts to prevent human infection with avian influenza.

MARAZIQ, Egypt, 9 April 2007 – For the citizens of the village of Maraziq, about 30 km south of Cairo, keeping chickens and ducks has long been a normal part of everyday life.

“Here in the countryside, birds are so important,” says Dawlet Salem, a grandmother with five grown children. “If we keep chickens or ducks or geese, it saves us having to buy meat or poultry from dealers. It supports the family – we can sell the birds or the eggs.”

But since early this year, it has been rare to see chickens foraging for food in Maraziq’s dusty streets and alleys. The ducks have disappeared from the murky waters of the little canal that runs near Ms. Salem’s house.

It was in January that local health authorities discovered the carcass of a dead chicken and, suspecting an outbreak of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, ordered an immediate cull of all domestic fowl within a one-km radius.

© UNICEF Egypt/2007
In the village of Maraziq, south of Cairo, Wafaa Ibrahim wears protective covering as she prepares food for her ducks.

Protecting a family’s health

“People had to slaughter all the birds they had,” recalls Ms. Salem sadly. “Chickens, ducks, geese – everything. And now people are afraid to keep birds of any kind.”

Ms. Salem’s daughter-in-law, Wafaa Ibrahim, got rid of most of her flock but spared a handful of chickens and ducks, which she managed to have vaccinated.

“The first I heard about avian flu was on television, when there were cases in foreign countries,” says Ms. Ibrahim. “Then when I heard it had arrived in Egypt, I started taking precautions of my own accord – like keeping the birds up here on the roof, and making sure the children didn’t go near them.”

The precautions were sensible but insufficient on their own. When Ms. Ibrahim received a visit from a community health worker, she was urged to take additional steps.

Now she covers her mouth and nose with a scarf when she approaches the birds to feed them. She enters the coops only after putting on slippers and clothing used solely for that purpose, and she washes her feet and hands in a bucket of disinfectant when she’s finished.

Awareness-raising sessions

Health worker Intisar Abdel Aleem nods approvingly at the measures that Ms. Ibrahim has taken.

© UNICEF Egypt/2007
Materials used in UNICEF-backed awareness-raising campaign on bird flu in Egypt.

“When I talk with families that keep birds, I try to reassure them as much as possible,” she says. “I tell them: Don’t slaughter your birds. Continue to raise them but follow our instructions because they will protect your health.”

The awareness-raising sessions that Ms. Aleem holds are part of a project supported by UNICEF in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Population, and the Swiss NGO Terre Des Hommes. Flip charts and other simple tools are used to demonstrate, for example, the safe way to dispose of dead birds and the importance of hygiene in preparing poultry for the table.

Women and girls are the principal target audience, because in most households they are the ones responsible for looking after the poultry.

Information is crucial

Schoolchildren are another prime focus of the bird flu education campaign. At the Salah Salem primary school in Daqalaya governorate, north of Cairo, messages about the dangers of approaching sick birds and other information are integrated into daily lessons.

“I know that avian flu is spread through migrating birds,” says Ahmed Salah, 10. “If someone handles birds, they should wash their hands properly afterwards.”

The breeding and trading of live poultry in communities up and down the Nile Valley is so vital that persuading them to abandon the practice is seen as futile. But as new cases of human infection continue to surface, the importance of encouraging people to protect themselves against a potentially deadly virus has never been more keenly felt.




March 2007:
UNICEF’s Simon Ingram reports on efforts to raise awareness of the potentially deadly bird flu virus in Egypt.
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