Sharon Reader, British Red Cross beneficiary communications delegate, reports on new approaches to tackling cholera in Sierra Leone:
It’s easy to persuade people to wash their hands and drink clean water when the spectre of cholera is looming. It’s not so easy when there is no scary disease waiting to strike. Be honest, do you always wash your hands before you eat?
I’ve been in Sierra Leone now for four months working with the Sierra Leone Red Cross to respond to a cholera epidemic. My role is hygiene promotion and raising awareness of health issues. Simple steps like regular hand washing with soap, treating water and cooking food fully can be the difference between sickness and health, life and death.
Research by the Red Cross has shown Sierra Leoneans are well aware of these important health and hygiene practices, but don’t fully understand the reasons behind them. Most people know they should use a toilet, but when asked where they go when there isn’t one, the most common answer is the river or the bush – which is a great way to spread cholera. Also, 40 per cent of people think water is safe to drink because it looks clean. And just like everyone else, what people say they do doesn’t always match the reality – 90 per cent of people say they wash their hands after the toilet, but only 17 per cent of homes had hand washing facilities near the toilet.
New radio show
Now the number of cholera cases has reduced and people aren’t scared anymore, it’s become even harder to get the message understood. The Red Cross has to find innovative ways to get people engaged in learning about cholera. We want people to understand how the disease spreads so they instinctively understand how to protect themselves all the time – and not just when people start dying.
One way we’re tackling this issue is through a new radio programme we’ve launched. It’s a weekly hour-long show on the national radio station SLBC, involving a panel discussion and members of the public calling in.
We dissect issues in detail, such as making sure water is safe to drink or why latrines stop the spread of cholera. And we’ve distributed wind-up, solar powered radios to make sure people can benefit from the show.
Earlier in the year, we set up a mobile cinema, which has now reached 30,000 people living in remote communities across the country with an animated movie and interactive format that gets people to identify the risks in their communities and make a plan to tackle them.
We’re also setting up an emergency SMS system with the country’s telecommunications companies, which will be able to warn of disease outbreaks and advise people on the closest sources of help should they fall ill. All of these innovative communication activities are working hand-in-hand with the traditional community health techniques like mothers’ clubs, peer educators in schools and house-to-house visits.
Controlling outbreaks of cholera
These combined approaches proved invaluable when cases started to rise and two people died in a densely populated mining community in Bo district in the centre of the country last week. Teams of community volunteers are going house to house, the mobile cinema is visiting the worst affected villages, two local radio shows are planned, and soap and water treatment tablets are being distributed. Thankfully for now, the outbreak is under control.
So while cholera cases may be down country-wide and the disease is no longer making the headlines, outbreaks like last week’s in Bo, will continue to happen. With these new tools and a commitment to keep communicating on cholera – even when there’s no outbreak, the Sierra Leone Red Cross will arm communities with the knowledge and behaviours they need to prevent, withstand and respond to this deadly disease.
As the Ministry of Health’s national theme song says; “let’s kick cholera out of Sierra Leone!”
Find our about our peacebuilding work in Sierra Leone