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Fighting Avian Flu with Puppets

When H5N1, the virus that causes avian influenza, was identified in Romania in late 2005, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) was one of the first to do something about it. The quick and effective efforts of USAID/Romania and its partners, which included the Romanian Ministry of Health, helped to prevent any cases of H5N1 infection in humans to date.

Group of children and adults enoying the puppet show.One such effort took place in the summer of 2006, when USAID's implementing partner, JSI Research & Training, Inc. (JSI), launched a campaign to teach children from rural families how to protect themselves from avian influenza. Local public health authorities, mayors, community nurses, Roma health mediators, and family doctors from rural areas joined students from Bucharest's Academy of Film and created a traveling musical puppet show. The show was designed to target difficult-to-reach children, such as those not in school, and those with poor literacy skills. Such children are at greater risk for infection because they miss traditional school-based prevention programs or have difficulty in the classroom. The puppets performed in eight Romanian counties that were believed to be at risk for outbreaks of avian flu. In one month's time, the puppet show played in 80 villages to 3,500 children and 551 adults.

Puppet show stage with donkey and chicken puppets.Children and adults alike enjoyed the interactive production immensely. The story opened with two conceited hens, horrified by the dramatic death of a common pigeon in their yard. The village priest and local doctor arrive and asked the children in the audience if they knew what to do if they see a dead bird. Messages about staying away from dead or sick birds and hand washing were repeated in catchy, amusing songs, with the actors addressing the audience directly. The pigeon gets sent away to be tested at a lab, leaving the two hens deeply worried. (After all, if the H5N1 virus was detected in their village, the hens know what will happen to them! And their favorite rooster seems to have a cold...)

Luckily, all's well that ends well, and all ended well for the hens and the villagers (except for the pigeon, who, it turns out, died of natural causes...whew!). After the tale, lessons about the importance of washing eggs before cooking and heating poultry products to more than 70 degrees C were conveyed in a funny, non-alarming way. And at the close of the show, the doctor and village priest gave special coloring books with avian flu safety messages and colored pencils to all the children.

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