Bird flu busters
By Robert Few
UDON THANI, January 2007 – Adults and children dressed as chickens marched through the streets of Baan Noong Wang village in the northeastern Thai province of Udon Thani. They chanted slogans and waved banners bearing a few simple facts on how to prevent the spread of avian influenza: Don’t touch dead birds, wash your hands before eating, keep different birds apart, report dead birds and cook food well.
Villagers came out of their houses to watch the colourful march. Sheltering from the midday heat on wooden porches, they were entertained by the eye-catching floats going by – but they also took the messages seriously.
“I knew a bit about bird flu before,” said 62-year old Booncherd Kammuan. “But I wasn’t sure what was safe and what was dangerous. We get so much confusing information but this was really clear and easy to understand.”
UNICEF, with financial assistance from the Japanese Government, has been on the frontlines of the battle against the spread of bird flu in Thailand since early 2006, providing over $2 million to partners for communication and education activities.
Educating adults is only the first step. The real hurdle is to simplify the complex health messages for children who are more at risk because they often play with birds and their feathers, unaware of the dangers this can pose.
UNICEF developed and printed 2 million booklets and pamphlets on bird flu for the Ministry of Education to disseminate to all 12 million children in every school in Thailand. The materials were designed in bright colours with simple text and pictures to ensure that they were attractive and easy for children to understand.
UNICEF also supported the Ministry of Education in the development of curriculum and trained teachers so that bird flu awareness will be taught in all schools alongside more traditional subjects.
Teams of ‘Bird Flu Busters’ regularly visit schools in areas considered at especially high risk of an outbreak. At Baan Noong Wang School, several hundred students crowded into the assembly hall, where the young volunteers trained by the Ministry of Public Health led younger children in songs, games and quizzes about the virus.
Initially shy, all the children had their hands in the air by the end of the session, volunteering answers on hygiene and safety.
“Children are especially at risk because they don’t understand the danger posed by sick or dead birds,” explained Sansanee Seetangkham, 15, the head of her local Bird Flu Busters group. “We make sure that children get information in a way they can understand – and we also teach parents so that they can pass on the correct facts to their sons and daughters.”
UNICEF is also supporting the government’s requirement of ‘passports’ for fighting cocks to travel or take part in matches.
On the day of the parade in Baan Noong Wang, breeders of fighting cocks were already gathered in the grounds of the local temple, waiting to apply for passports for their birds.
“I love my rooster as much as my children,” said one of the breeders, Surin Eamthongdee. “He is like a part of the family. If he became ill and had to be culled, I’d be devastated.”
Within minutes, health workers had weighed, photographed and tested his bird for flu before it was issued with a passport bearing its name, ‘Black Diamond’. Mr. Eamthongdee himself also signed up to become a bird flu volunteer who will give information to other farmers and encourage them to report flu symptoms.
There is no fail-safe protection against bird flu at the moment. But preparations like these, which leave communities and their children with the knowledge to minimize danger, are the best way to ensure that any outbreak threatens as few lives as possible.