Community engagement is vital for Haiti’s chikungunya prevention campaign

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By Doudly Elius, IFRC

"Do you know how to protect yourselves from the chikungunya virus?” asked Haiti Red Cross Society volunteer Marc Antoine to a crowd with his loud hailer. He is part of the response team working to cover the streets of Croix-des-Bouquets, a bustling business area in Haiti, where the mosquito-borne disease poses a risk to many. Their task is to spread simple yet critical information to residents, many of whom may not recognize the name of the virus, nor the fact that their lives could be at risk.

It is a widespread cause for concern. Almost 65,000 suspected cases of chikungunya have been reported throughout Haiti since the beginning of the epidemic in May of this year, according to the Pan American Health Organization. Health authorities have not stopped working to curb the effect of the virus, and the Haitian Red Cross plays a large part in empowering the community to stay safe.

In collaboration with the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population, trusted community health workers like Marc aim to help 25,000 people in areas most affected by the disease. Red Cross volunteer coordinators lead ‘train the trainer’ sessions, which teach volunteers to train others in their community to disseminate important information. This can include how to recognise chikungunya symptoms, where to seek treatment, and how to prevent the disease.

Community-based health workforces like these not only empower residents to take charge of their own health through peer engagement, but they also provide the most vulnerable people with access to healthcare.

"We pay special attention to vector control measures to reduce transmission of the disease and the monitoring mechanisms for each community, depending on the community network where the volunteers live," said Lina Villa, head of Health in Emergencies of the Pan American Disaster Response Unit of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, based in Panama.

Thirteen coordinators, one for each branch of the National Society, have the mission of training 500 more volunteers from the most vulnerable municipalities to educate as many people as possible and get additional members of the community involved.

In the urban areas of Delmas and Croix-des-Bouquets, groups of volunteers do not go unnoticed in the streets. Their presence encourages the population to listen, engage and act. "The residents of Croix-des-Bouquets have expressed how important this chikungunya prevention effort is because they admitted that they did not really understand how to avoid catching the disease," said Dorelus Jackson, Coordinator at the Haitian Red Cross in charge of sanitation and awareness activities with volunteers. In these communities, knowledge is power to help protect themselves and their loved ones from the virus.

"The Haiti Red Cross Society mobilized its network of volunteers to assist the Haitian population. We invest in health promotion campaigns which rely on multiple communication channels, such as radio and door-to-door sensitization work. This is combined with fumigation activities," said Dr. Agénor Junior Clergé, Director of Programmes and Projects Department.

183 volunteers who are already trained in epidemic control methodology underwent a refresher course on vector diseases to better cope with the chikungunya epidemic

This multiple communication channel approach has facilitated the spread of prevention messages to a greater number of people, especially in remote rural areas that are usually difficult for volunteers to access. However, Dr. Clergy said: “Despite the significant decrease in cases, the Haitian people must remain on guard because chikungunya is still present in our environment."

Community health volunteers’ connections to the community and understanding of the context ideally places them as key resources in developing locally appropriate responses to health issues, encouraging community engagement and promoting sustainability towards reaching universal health coverage.