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The power of change

More than one hundred children sit without moving. Their eyes are glued to the screen of a laptop in the open air hall, in a remote town of Sierra Leone. These West African children are watching a short animated video about how to prevent cholera. Dotted around the outskirts of the hall are their parents and people from the village. They are all transfixed by the small screen.

"We used the most powerful tool, (the video) I have ever seen," says Australian Red Cross community health aid worker, Libby Bowell, who has worked in some of the toughest post-disaster environments in the world, including Haiti and Indonesia.

Libby says it was wonderful to see the children and community engage and respond to the five minute video, narrated by a young boy in Creole. Using animation, music and compelling imagery, an animated character, a boy, takes the audience on an entertaining and educational journey abut cholera. It was remarkable to see how the cholera prevention story in the video interested children and their families, Libby explains.

The video was screened by Libby to thousands of people, in many villages, during a serious cholera crisis late last year. The crisis claimed more than 300 lives and affected around 32,000 people across Sierra Leone.

Red Cross responded immediately to the outbreak, reaching more than 350,000 people with basic hygiene information, stressing the importance of washing hands in the affected districts. Libby was there as part of a community health team, deployed in emergencies to assist Sierra Leone Red Cross as it responded to the needs. The Community Health Team concept was developed jointly by the Australian, Norwegian and Canadian Red Cross to work with local Red Cross volunteers, in order to help to prevent the spread of disease and detect community outbreaks very early after a disaster.

"It's a country that should have so much more but, I think, 10 per cent of the population have access to a toilet and 30 per cent of the population have access to safe water," Libby says.

Despite their daily challenges, Libby says it was inspiring to work with those affected by cholera in Sierra Leone, describing the communities as "beautiful people with just incredible hurdles to battle against."

When Libby left the country, she says there was evidence that change was underway. "Deaths from cholera had dropped significantly with only a couple being reported in the last week or so when I was there," she says happily.

"It's about empowering village people themselves, the community members, and Red Cross volunteers with enough knowledge to make behaviour changes. That's probably the guts of it."


Photo: Children sit transfixed, watching a short video as part of hygiene and community health education taking place in villages across Sierra Leone.