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Using theatre to raise awareness of bird flu prevention in Bangladesh

UNICEF Image: Bangladesh, bird flu
© UNICEF Bangladesh/2008/ Amin
Safura Khatun wears a safety mask while tending to the birds in her poultry farm, but her good habits are not always practiced among poultry handlers in Bangladesh.

By Arifa S.Sharmin

DHAKA, Bangladesh, 22 May, 2008 – With its feel of suburban comfort, Dhour village in the Harirampur Union does not look like a typical Bangladeshi town. But, like many towns in Bangladesh, Dhour is home to many small poultry farms. In most households of this village, chickens are as much at home as the residents, roaming as freely inside the houses as they move in the backyards.

Safura Khatun, age 50, raises about 400 chickens on the roof of her building in an enclosed area with a tin roof. She has been in business for almost a year and a half, but she says her profits have staggered in the past two months.

“People do not want to eat chicken or eggs any more because of bird flu,” she explains.

Since January, Bangladesh has seen massive Avian Influenza outbreaks across the country, spreading to 47 out of 64 districts and affecting 286 farms. The Government has culled over 1.5 million chickens.

Changing local practices

With UNICEF support, the Government has disseminated educational messages through the mass media to raise public awareness on bird flu prevention.

The most immediate response by the public has been to stop eating chicken and eggs. Unfortunately, poultry rearing and handling practices, where the real danger often lies, have remained largely the same. 

Ms. Khatun, for example, says that she is aware of avian influenza and how to prevent it. “I use separate clothes and a mask when I work in the chicken pens. I also clean my hands and feet with soap after work,” she said.

UNICEF Image: Bangladesh, bird flu
© UNICEF Bangladesh/2008/ Amin
Villagers of Dhour village gather for a performance by a local drama troupe about the dangers of avian influenza. UNICEF has organized more than five hundred performances in different parts of the country in 2008.

Others in the community are not practicing safe hygiene, however. One young poultry-handler is seen placing eggs in a pot without washing his hands or the eggs. Another enters the poultry farm without wearing a mask or washing his hands.

In a nearby community, 22-year-old Rina Begum has a small backyard farm in which she used to rear twelve chickens and four ducks – until she introduced a new chicken into the same cage and all the birds died.

Rina does not know if her chickens died of bird flu, but says she had never experienced such rapid mortality from disease before. She says she is aware that cases of avian influenza should be reported to local authorities, but she could not afford the cost involved.

“It would have cost me one hundred taka (about $1.50) to go to the local government office. I need this money to feed my family,” she says. 

Encouraging safety through theatre

With funding from the Government of Japan, UNICEF is working with local folk theatre groups across Bangladesh to close the gap between knowledge and safe practices among poultry handlers.

UNICEF has organized more than five hundred performances in different parts of the country in 2008, mainly in high-risk areas, to foster practices that can prevent the further spread of bird flu.

Recently in Dhour village, a rickshaw equipped with a megaphone drove through the community, inviting people to the show that evening. By 4 PM, some five hundred men, women and children had assembled at the school ground to watch the performance, a mix of drama and traditional songs.

“This drama is an eye-opener to me,” said Ms. Khatun, who also came to watch the show.

The messages delivered by the theatre company are adapted to the local context and are presented in local dialect so that people can easily understand.

“I never realized before that cleaning our hands with soap can save us from this disease” said one villager attending the show.




22 May 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Natacha Ikoli reports on educational theatre working to prevent the spread of bird flu in Bangladesh.
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