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Puppets tour for bird flu prevention in Lao PDR

Puppet troupe in Lao PDR
© UNICEF/LAO/Souvannavong
Lao's National Puppet Theatre recently wrapped a tour of more than 30 villages in six northern provinces

Xayabouli province, Lao PDR

When a giant rooster scattering blood-red feathers dashes into the middle of a rural village in northern Lao PDR, a group of startled children gasp and leap back in surprise.

Their eyes grow wide as the rooster cackles out threats of a deadly disease and encourages the stunned villagers to ignore their hygiene and eat undercooked food.

But it’s not long before the rooster stumbles and falls. The children’s gasps soon turn to giggles as they watch the menacing bird’s defeat by characters who refuse the wayward advice. Instead, the puppets in the show the children are watching clean out their chicken coops and homes, wash their hands and cook their food thoroughly. The bird-flu monster has been foiled, and to the villager’s delight, he wheezes and falls dead in front of them.

“The big chicken was scary at first,” says Maniphone, a 9-year old who watched the show with her family. “But in real life, I’m not scared; we just have to do things like cook chicken meat and eggs really well. Then he can’t get us.”

Like others in Ban Thadeua, a small riverside village in Lao PDR’s northwestern Xayabouli province, Maniphone is absorbing the messages being cleverly conveyed by the Lao National Puppet Theatre. The troupe has traveled hundreds of kilometers from the country’s capital, Vientiane, as part of a joint campaign led by the Lao Government and UNICEF to combat the spread of avian and human influenza. The campaign is funded by a grant from the people of Japan.

Mixing messages and humour

The following morning in Ban Thadeua, villagers can be seen tacking up posters to the fronts of their shop, reading the booklets handed out after the show and quietly discussing their favorite scenes from the night before. 

This is both a familiar and satisfying sight to Souvandy Chanthavong, deputy director of the Puppet Theatre, which is under the Ministry of Information and Culture. Souvandy has already helped to stage 25 similar shows in villages across six provinces of northern Laos over the past two months.

“Wherever we go, our shows interest nearly everyone. They’re a strong means of communicating,” he explains, pulling up a chair in a local restaurant. “They draw people in. It’s different from someone like a health worker who just comes and talks into a microphone. We’re not just giving people messages, we’re also providing entertainment.”

Mixing messages and humor means the ideas are more easily retained, he adds. “When people laugh they remember.”

Children are laughing while watching the pupet show
© UNICEF/LAO/Souvannavong
Children are learning bird flu's key messages from the puppet show

A difficult delivery

As fun as the shows might appear on stage, getting the messages out to such remote areas is no simple task for Souvandy and the 11 other members of his troupe. Every morning the puppeteers must strap on face masks and wrap themselves in scarves. But their protective gear has nothing to do with the dangers of bird flu. The dust swirling off the road enroute to the next show coats everything from the truck to the crew and all their equipment in a thick layer of orange film. 

“Traveling is the hardest part. The dust can be so bad, and when it rains, the mud can make it almost impossible,” says Ms Phonevilay Panyasith, a singer who’s been traveling with the troupe on its various campaigns for the past six years. “The troupe becomes very close, like a family. We do everything together, not just the performances; we eat, set things up, sleep, travel and so on.”

But the travels pay off, she says, especially in the locations that are most difficult to get to. The theatre’s largest audiences turn up in the most rural areas – places where there is little other entertainment. The troupe estimates that they draw about 300 people per show on average, though in some of the most remote villages the audiences have totaled more than 1,000, many of whom complained the two-hour performances were too short.

The tour, which wrapped up early this month, included a total of more than 30 performances in six northern provinces.

Public information posters shown after the puppet performance in Ban Thadeua of Xayabouli province

The battle for ‘behaviour change’

Prior to the troupe’s performances, many Lao villagers have never heard of avian flu, and those that have often consider it something still distant and removed from their daily lives.

“I’ve seen news reports on Thai TV, but I didn’t really think it was something we had to worry about here,” says Ms Hiam, a shopkeeper who raises chickens and runs a cock fighting arena in Xayabouli capital. She adds that after watching the puppet show, she’ll be trhinking more about how she handles her chickens.

“Chickens die every year when it gets cold,” she says, referring to Newcastle disease, a common virus found in domestic and wild birds in the winter months. “But now I know that we should be thinking about bird flu too.”

Ultimately, bringing the issue closer to home and changing risky behaviours are the goals of the joint communication strategy. But the puppet show is just one facet of this effort. Late last year, a talking drama troupe made a similar tour of villages in southern provinces. Additional activities over the past year have resulted in the production of more than a million messaging materials such as posters, booklets, billboards, TV and radio spots, according to UNICEF. Regional trainings have also produced teams of educators responsible for taking messages to villagers face-to-face throughout the entire country.

All the messages are aimed at promoting behaviours that reduce the likelihood of bird flu transmission as well as other infectious diseases. Experts say these measures will become even more critically important in the event of a pandemic as the first line of defense for reducing the spread of the virus.

Bird flu still remains difficult for humans to catch. But experts fear it could mutate into a strain that could spread easily among humans and potentially kill millions around the world.

This, says Souvandy, is why locals are working to spread information through campaigns such as the puppet troupe faster than the disease.

“People are learning that this is dangerous issue,” he says. “Even though the show is funny, they know it’s a serious topic. They’ll take back what they remember and put it to use in real life. That’s what we’re hoping will make a difference.”



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