Communication as a cure

As the world watches closely to see where Mexican swine flu hits next a forgotten influenza crisis continues to threaten the village farmers of Indonesia

Avian influenza, or bird flu, first struck the archipelago in December 2003. Since then the Indonesian government has succeeded in controlling the H5N1 virus in large poultry lines with mass vaccinations and where necessary, mass culling of already infected birds.

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Australia invested millions of dollars into helping Indonesia deal with the initial outbreak. This assistance has been continued through AusAid programs contributing medical and laboratory assistance and helping with the destruction of affected birds.

The virus, however, continues to spread through flocks of ducks and chickens bred in backyards for food and extra income by village farmers.

Bird flu in Indonesia is still rated as endemic by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The organization believes that a lack of education about the virus is a part of the problem.

Based in Jakarta, OnTrackMedia Indonesia (OTMI) is a non-government-organisation (NGO) working to spread basic health and safety messages about bird flu to the masses. Former journalist and producer, Imelda Salajan, is OTMI’s team leader. She uses her experience and knowledge of the mass communication industry to design public awareness campaigns.

“Communication is actually quite a science. It’s not as simple as you write an article and everybody reads it. You’ve only got a certain target group that reads newspapers. We use other forms of media that are much more powerful,” Ms Salajan said.

OTMI is working partnership with UNICEF and the Community Based Avian Influenza Community project (CBAIC). The goal is to educate Indonesians about the signs of bird flu in a flock, what to do if there is a break out, and how to seek help.

“We designed little quizzes to go on the back of the bus seat covers featuring key messages about bird flu. We included a quiz as well and people could text message in their answers to win prizes…It makes people remember it.”

The campaign was acknowledged in 2007 with the ‘Best Practices award’ for bird flu public awareness by the CBAIC.

“By making the information short and strong, putting it somewhere everyone will see it and making it interactive, people remember that,” Imelda said.

Indonesia has the highest rate of bird flu infections and deaths in humans worldwide with 141 infections and 115 laboratory confirmed deaths reported to the World Health Organisation to date.

While communities are aware of the virus, most do not consider it to be a fatal disease. Rather, most Indonesians are concerned about a threat to their food supplies and small but vital incomes.

Human cases of the virus have been linked to direct human contact with contaminated poultry products and infected live or dead poultry.

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The World Health Organisation says there is no evidence backing claims that the virus can be transmitted to humans, if food is properly cooked.

A combination of dirty water, unhygienic culling practices and a failure to isolate and kill sick birds has created the perfect breeding ground for bird flu.

Mimin Mariam, a grandmother of six, saw the OTMI campaign on a bus trip from Bekasi to Bandung and says she passed on the message to her family.

“I was really influenced by the messages…the cartoons were easy to understand and memorise. I even forbid my grandchildren from playing with any birds such as chicken or ducks…and make washing hands with soap a family habit.”

Ms Mariam says she also now instructs her maid to wash the kitchen utensils with soap.

For her response to the bird flu awareness quiz, Mimin won a mobile phone. A reward Imelda says helps catch people’s attention.

“It also means we get feedback and some kind of idea of whether people are paying attention to the posters.” Imelda says.

“It also gives us a permanent record of the people who have acknowledged the information.”

Asep Muhyidin was another winner of the bird flu bus ride quiz. She won a hand phone for her response while travelling from Jakarta to Merak.

“We spent hours on the bus and read the messages again and again during the journey, and we remember it whether we like it or not…it’s more useful than a TV commercial because it has more details in it.”

Mass communication is the link missing in developing countries where universal education systems or health care do not exist. With the help of NGOs and foreign aid programs perhaps one day Indonesians everywhere across the 17 000 islands will understand the potential of this virus.

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