Vanuatu: Protecting children from diarrhoea

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ORT VILA, 8 April 2015 — To help children facing the life-threatening risk of diarrheal disease in the wake of Cyclone Pam, the Vanuatu Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) are working together to communicate critical public health advice via mobile phone text messages.

“Diarrhoeal disease can be deadly, especially in children,” said Mr Viran Tovu, a senior official at the Vanuatu Ministry of Health. “We are working on many fronts to reduce the risk, and sharing advice through text messages is helping us get life-saving messages to the people.”

This innovative use of technology targets people living in rural areas, who have greater access to mobile phones than to television, radio and newspapers. The messages include:

wash hands before cooking and eating, and after using the toilet; drink plenty of safe boiled water if you get diarrhea; continue to breastfeed if your baby is sick; and take your child to a health centre immediately if they are sick. WHO, the United Nations Children's Fund and other partners also support the Ministry of Health in sending oral rehydration salts and zinc tablets – essential treatments for diarrhoea – to health facilities in Tanna. The island of Tanna was one of the hardest hit provinces by the cyclone.

“The situation is quite desperate,” said Dr Anthony Kolbe, a WHO epidemiologist who recently visited Tanna. “Many homes in Tanna were destroyed; the water is contaminated; and people are living in very crowded conditions.”

There are increasing cases of diarrhea reported across Tanna. Diarrheal disease is the leading cause of death in children under-5 years. Diarrhoeal disease is often spread through contaminated water or food, and is easily passed from person-to-person.

In Vanuatu, more than 160 000 people across 22 islands are affected by Cyclone Pam. All of these people are at increased risk of disease outbreaks. Initial assessment shows that an estimated 11 000 people are still without access to safe drinking-water in affected areas.

Many are concerned about the shortfall in financial support for the health response. As of 4 April, less than one quarter has been received of the almost US$ 5 million that health sector partners have requested to address urgent health and nutrition needs until June.

“The health situation in Vanuatu is very serious, and it will get worse if we’re not able to continue to support our response efforts,” said Dr Jacob Kool, WHO Country Liaison Officer to Vanuatu. “The funds donated thus far are being put to good use, but we have a long way to go to ensure the health and safety of the people of Vanuatu.”

For more information, please contact:

Ms Helen Yu Communications Officer in Vanuatu Telephone: +678 27683 extension 83204 Mobile: +678 547 8082 Email:

Mr Ryan Baker Risk Communications Consultant, Division of Health Security and Emergencies Telephone: +632 528 9986 Email:

Mr Ruel E. Serrano Assistant, Public Information Office Telephone: +632 528 9993 Email: