From Avian Flu Tragedy Communities Work Together with Help from UNICEF
In Salyan, on the way to the villages, one encounters beautiful rivers, trees, and wetland scenery sustaining a diverse ecosystem including fish, mammals, and birds and water fowl. The villagers used to make a living hunting the ducks and geese that abound in the area, but since the two-year hunting ban they have had to resort to other ways to sustain themselves economically. One man doesn’t seem too unhappy that his son has not been able to go hunting with him and learn the trade, and he pats the boy’s shoulder as he says “hunting is a very hard life”. The state-ordered ban was put into place for people’s own protection as the Salyan region has been the unfortunate cite of several cases of Avian Influenza and seven deaths.
Since the first person died, a seventeen-year old girl on February 23rd in 2006, UNICEF and WHO have been ensuring that local villagers are informed about the virus. Where at least one hundred households have previously relied on income from hunting fowl and even more had from selling poultry and eggs, it has been a difficult time, and people are left feeling helpless “we are afraid of the flu and of getting the disease” one man said speaking for a group of twenty-five others. “We have made big changes to our behavior and lifestyles, and it has been very hard but we are still scared.”
Many robust children play excitedly in a school’s playground, and all of them, aged eleven to fifteen, know not to touch any birds; and one boy looks particularly forlorn when he speaks about how he can no longer play with his poultry. Most of the other children laugh and seem to be carefree, but the truth is many of them are still afraid and they look forward to their daily sessions when their teachers talk to them about Avian Flu, hoping for some new information they can bring home to their parents.
The dire need to raise awareness in the region and the people’s unfailing cooperation is why UNICEF has been successful in their campaign to educate the public on preventative measures. Villagers had not only applied UNICEF’s recommendations, such as keeping children away from birds in general, keeping poultry in closed spaces, and applying preventative hygiene procedures, but the communities have come up with some solutions of their own to help reduce potential spread of the virus.
The communities have made the decision to appoint only one person per household to touch or have contact with poultry and eggs. Designating one poultry handler per family reduces the number of people at risk of infection, and these designates do so only with proper handling and cleaning techniques. Being the most vulnerable to Avian Flu, children in the region are watched carefully by their communities, making sure they are kept away from any eggs and poultry. And in the village of Rayanu, holding his youngest daughter tenderly in his arms, one father takes an even more active role in his community, “I share my eggs with my neighbors because they know my poultry is safe, I keep it in closed spaces where the birds cannot have contact with wild birds that may be infected”.
The impact of Avian Flu on the region’s residents has been very grave but the result is that communities are starting to band together on bigger issues, some even forming clubs where people can get together and discuss problems caused by Avian Flu. In Shorsulu, worried residents report, “the canal is very dirty, but it is our only source of potable water and it is not safe”. With Avian Flu triggering anxiety and helplessness, people are starting to look at their surroundings and discuss other important factors, such as environmental issues. In Sarvan where four out of the seven deaths occurred, one passionate man stood out from the group, “we have a strong advocacy campaign in the region. We work with doctors and health specialists in order to inform people about health issues in general.”
Hungry for More Information
People are hungry for more information regarding Avian Flu, such as the UNICEF information pamphlets their children bring home from school. Residents desperately wish to attend public forums on Avian Flu, as put by a small group of women all holding a young child or a young child’s hand, “we are available every moment to talk about Avian Flu”. In another village, the men specified “we want to know the origin of Avian Flu”.
Local district officials have tried to be involved, “what we really want is to focus on changing behavior rather than simply to focus on communications”. So far, people have made serious efforts to change their behavior at the request of Salyan officials, and with good results, as there hasn’t been another incident of Avian Flu since March 10th, 2006 when a sixteen year-old boy died. But behavior change can only happen through education and awareness and even then, there still has to be the means: such as access to hot water for washing; for materials to build proper poultry barns; or access to proper bird disposal.
From the tragedy of Avian Flu has sprung a wealth of resourcefulness, revealed by how the villagers have come together to support each other and search for solutions that will serve the common good. While people are nervous about the flu, it is the continuing education of both adults and children that has led to concrete steps and change in behavior that has prevented the occurrence of any more incidents. UNICEF will continue to work with the people, providing them with access to information so that they may win in the fight against Avian Flu.