Jakarta teaches kids to stay healthy after floods

On a Saturday morning last month, some 50 children affected by heavy floods sat attentively at their desks at the Perguruan Rakyat 1 Elementary School in Kampung Melayu, East Jakarta, to listen to a volunteer storyteller and watch magic tricks.They burst out in laughter as hand puppets spoke about the importance of basic sanitation, and were fascinated by a demonstration that used glitter to represent the spread of germs.A group of volunteers then spoke to the students, aged between nine and 12, in smaller groups about how to avoid catching waterborne diseases such as typhoid and diarrhoea.“Areas like Kampung Melayu Kecil, close to the Ciliwung river, are accustomed to flooding and infectious diseases,” says Dr Ristin Respatiningsih, a former general practitioner (GP) who now does health promotion work.“Yet poor sanitation routines are a tough cycle to break, especially among slums in Jakarta,” she adds.Officials have embarked on a city-wide sanitation drive amid concerns of an outbreak of infectious disease following Jakarta’s recent floods, which could see a repeat in coming weeks.The Health Ministry’s director-general of disease control and environmental health, Professor Tjandra Yoga Aditama, told The Straits Times that insecticides and sanitation brochures have been delivered to hard-hit areas in an effort to prevent a similar scenario to 2007, when hospitals were overwhelmed by patients suffering from waterborne diseases.Following periods of significant flooding, Jakarta residents have typically struggled with diarrhoea, skin infections and influenza, and occasionally mosquito-borne disease such as dengue and Chikungunya fever after coming into contact with disease-ridden floodwaters. After the 2007 floods, at least 190,000 people sought treatment for flood-related illnesses.This time Professor Tjandra said the Health Ministry was “monitoring sanitation and disease control carefully”.“So far there has been no significant increase of any infectious disease in Jakarta,” he said.He noted that government preparations for flooding had improved since 2007, and many people now know about the disease and sanitation risks associated with heavy flooding.“They’ve learnt from the previous time,” Professor Tjandra said.At the school in Kampung Melayu, Sister Eileen Healy, one of the volunteers, said: “We’re teaching them about hand washing and the importance of not swimming in the flood water. I’m really worried about the after effects of this because the sewage is probably mixed with that water.” “But I’m not really sure the kids know how to scrub their hands with soap. It was like I handed them soap and they weren’t sure what to do with it.”She is, however, optimistic given how some of the lessons seemed to catch on.“We talked a lot about how germs are spread. Earlier, they were sneezing into their hands and I noticed afterwards they were sneezing into their elbows,” she said.Dr Ristin, who was in Kampung Melayu with a group of volunteers who had set up a Facebook page to collate help for the area, acknowledged poor sanitation routines were a tough cycle to break, despite residents being accustomed to flooding and waterborne diseases.“I hope they already know things like (the importance of) wearing sandals and hand washing properly, even if it’s difficult when there’s no soap,” she said.“Still, (when) they have food, they think its okay to say ‘I’m not washing, it’s okay’. It’s a habit.. it’s hard to stop.”But she also felt that some of the girls she spoke to after their lesson seemed responsive.“We should not feel discouraged. I believe this type of voluntary work is very helpful in raising awareness and reinforcing in the community the importance of hygiene and sanitation,” she added.Ashleigh Stewart is an intern at the ST Indonesia Bureau under a programme run by the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies, which introduces young students and graduates to Indonesia. She is from Christchurch and recently completed a post-graduate diploma in journalism.