By Agustín Cáceres*
When I was a child, my school days were sometimes fairly boring. Long classes, presentations, homework… Probably that is why, when I travelled to Chiapas (Mexico) to coordinate a number activities to educate almost 4,000 kids about healthy habits to prevent Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), I only had one thing in mind: Let’s try to make it as fun as possible.
We arrived in the village of Huixtán, in an isolated area in the mountains of Chiapas, and we started setting up everything for a day full of activities. The students of the Benito Juárez Primary School watched us closely, realizing this would not be an average school day. State health workers dressed up to represent a larger than life water drop, hand, and soap bar welcomed students on the playground. The party had started.
In Chiapas, many children live under poor conditions: Illiteracy is 52.37 percent, many people lack access to potable water and sanitation, and many homes don’t have cement floors. Due to these conditions, more than 300,000 people, mostly members of indigenous communities, are at risk of contracting a Neglected Tropical Disease.
At 8 am, a team of health workers speaking in Tzeltal, one of the local indigenous languages, split the excited kids into groups. Younger students in first and second grades started the morning learning the basics of the SAFE strategy (Surgery, Antibiotics, Facial cleanliness and Environmental change). With the help of the larger than life representations of hand, soap, and water the health workers conducted a workshop on hand and face washing to prevent soil-transmitted helminthes and trachoma -a disease that can cause blindness, still present in rural communities of this Mexican state.
Meanwhile, fifth and sixth graders participated in presentations about these and other NTDs, including Chagas disease and leishmaniasis, conducted both in Spanish and Tzeltal. The students learned about the ways these diseases are transmitted, symptoms, and prevention measures such as identifying the tick responsible for transmitting the parasite that causes Chagas in their homes. Over 120 cases of this disease are diagnosed in Chiapas every year.
“We try to make learning about NTDs fun for the kids in these communities. We tailor the messages and the activities to the different age groups and to their cultural context” said Dr. Janet Morales, State Coordinator for Chagas and Leishmaniasis of the Chiapas Health Institute. “We believe that working with these kids is highly effective. While they are playing and having a good time, they learn about NTDs and then transmit all this information to their parents at home, educating their own communities”.
Once these activities came to an end, the students received crayons and coloring books with games and drawings about good habits for preventing these diseases. “Ending the health education activities in this festive manner makes kids think of NTDs with a different perspective. Preventing them is up to them, and it can be fun” said Dr. Morales. One thing is clear: the kids of Huixtán will surely remember this day for a long time to come, and I also hope they will remember how to support the elimination of these diseases in their communities.
Agustín Cáceres is a Communications and Outreach consultant at the Social Protection and Health Division of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington DC. He implements communications, advocacy and social mobilization activities for the Neglected Tropical Disease Initiative for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Agustin’s work focuses on health and its social conditionings, particularly neglected tropical diseases and other diseases of poverty, health education and youth at risk.