By Sue Nelson in Bangkok
In the wake of the ongoing Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (HFMD) health crisis in Vietnam, the Red Cross has mobilized hundreds of volunteers to conduct a massive public information campaign targeting carers of children under five.
New cases of the contagious viral illness among pre-schoolers have jumped significantly in the country over the last 12 months resulting in 166 deaths last year and 11 this year. Deaths have been attributed to a more virulent strain of the virus, known as EV71.
According to the Vietnam Ministry of Health, more than 15,000 cases have been reported this year to mid-March. This is seven times greater than the same time last year. The virus’s symptoms include fever, blisters on the hands and feet and sores in the mouth.
“Hand, foot and mouth disease is not treatable but the risk of catching it is greatly reduced through good hygiene practices,” the Secretary-General of Vietnam Red Cross, Mr Doan Van Thai, says.
Since the incidence of the disease first began to increase rapidly last year, the Vietnam Red Cross has moved swiftly to educate people in the hardest-hit communes about how to reduce the risks. It has trained more than 750 volunteers and produced a wide range of public information tools to educate parents and carers on the importance of good hygiene, such as regular hand washing and covering mouths when coughing or sneezing.
“We are working hard on delivering practical steps to carers of small children to prevent the spread of the disease, and have so far reached about 145,000 households in the five worst-affected provinces,” Mr Thai says. “This is through house-to-house visits and community information.
We have also specifically targeted informal day care centres, providing them with leaflets and posters, as well as soap to reinforce hand washing demonstrations.”
The IFRC’s representative in Vietnam, Bhupinder Tomar, says, “Our surveys have shown the campaign has already been very effective in improving knowledge about the importance of carers washing their hands before and after coming into contact with sick children, keeping them at home, away from other children, and making sure food is well cooked and water is safe.”
Importantly, there was a 32 per cent increase in awareness that carers should wash their hands before coming into contact with a child and an increase of 33 per cent that children’s hands should be washed after playing or contact with toys.
Vietnam Red Cross is seeking support from donors to expand the programme for a further six months from April. This expanded campaign will target 13 of the worst affected provinces: two in central Vietnam and 11 in the south.
“It is vital that this disease be brought under control as its victims - small children - are some of the most vulnerable in our community,” Tomar says.
“Additionally, proper hygiene practices prevent a whole range of communicable diseases, so there could be untold long-term benefits to families.”