By Ly Nguyen in Viet Nam
Since 2011, Viet Nam has been facing an unprecedented rise in hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) infections. A common viral illness spread through bodily contact and poor hygiene, HFMD typically affects infants and children under the age of five years, particularly those under three. Even though the disease is known for causing mild illness in most cases, a sudden increase in 2011 saw infections rise to about 112,300. A total of 169 died and in major cities hospitals were overwhelmed.
In 2012, cases of HFMD infection continued to escalate, with peaks of infection reaching more than 6,000 cases each week. By the end of August, the Ministry of Health confirmed that close to 75,000 cases of the disease had been seen, with infections in 63 of the 64 provinces in Viet Nam.
Following its successful HFMD operation in 2011, the Ministry of Health and local authorities requested support from the Viet Nam Red Cross in tackling the crisis the following year. With the support of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) and partner National Societies, Viet Nam Red Cross complemented the national efforts in HFMD response by carrying out behaviour change communication activities at national and commune levels.
Red Cross volunteers work in the most affected areas, promoting proper hygiene practices and sharing of information about symptoms of the disease. Besides a public awareness campaign in the local and national media, the organization also conducted visits to households and informal day care centres to target parents and caregivers of children under three, as well as teachers and workers at informal day care centres. Despite these efforts, the disease is still quietly making its way into many homes.
“My seven-year-old daughter caught the disease two months ago,” says Phan Thi Nhung, a 39-year-old mother from An Phu District, An Giang Province. “The information I learned from the Red Cross helped me to identify the symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease, so I was able to take her to the hospital at the right time.” She regularly disinfects her home and washes her hands before cooking – and she teaches her two daughters to do the same.
Dinh Thi Mai, who is part of an ethnic minority group called the Ko-tu, lives about 1,000km north of Phan’s home, in a rural area of Da Nang Province. Mai’s daughter was infected with HFMD when she was five months old.
“Although I cannot read, the flyer from the Red Cross about hand, foot and mouth disease was easy for me to understand,” Mai says. Thanks to the information, Mai was able to identify the symptoms on her daughter and knew when she had to take her to hospital for treatment.
Viet Nam Red Cross has successfully reached a large number of families such as Nhung’s and Mai’s, but more support is needed in order to continue their efforts of protecting communities from the disease, as well as other health threats.
The Red Cross hopes to continue to mobilize volunteers and communities on epidemic control and prevention, and avoid further outbreaks of the disease – not only in 2013, but also in the years to come. Through the operation, Viet Nam Red Cross has also improved its emergency health preparedness and response capacity through the development of contingency plans and training of staff and response teams.
The operation has confirmed and consolidated Viet Nam Red Cross’s auxiliary role to the government in emergency response in general and emergency health response in particular.