Mascot spreads ‘clean faces, strong eyes’ message

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Towering over young children, Milpa the cheery- eyed,  bright green and orange trachoma goanna needs a minder to manage his many fans  when he lumbers into remote indigenous communities. The official mascot of the  Northern Territory Trachoma Elimination Campaign was launched in July 2011 and is spreading the ‘clean faces, strong eyes’ message. Milpa is part of the  social marketing campaign against trachoma that was initiated by the Indigenous Eye Health Unit, in the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health and headed by Professor Hugh Taylor AC.

Milpa’s name means ‘eye’ in Walpiri language. The goanna character was developed by artist Lily McDonald and her many graphics feature in The Trachoma Story Kits, which were developed in 2010 by the unit in  partnership with Katherine West Health Board and the Northern Territory Government’s Centre for Disease Control.

More than 680 Trachoma Story Kits have now been distributed across three states. Unit project officer  Josie  Atkinson worked on the unit’s social marketing campaign in 2011, creating ‘clean faces, strong eyes’ messages for TV and radio advertisements featuring indigenous footy stars Aaron Davey and Liam Jurrah from Melbourne Football Club (which supports the trachoma campaign), web-based educational resources, and promotional products.

Fiona Lange, the unit’s health promotions officer, made several trips to NT indigenous communities this year coordinating the campaign, which aims to motivate, model, resource, remind and reinforce clean faces and other hygiene practices. The falling trachoma rates in some Northern Territory indigenous communities (yet to be officially released) show that their efforts are working.

The unit has been working with indigenous communities to emphasise the importance of clean faces in stopping the spread of trachoma, the  bacterial disease that is a leading cause of blindness in indigenous  communities. The unit’s work supports one of the four pillars of the World  Health Organisation’s SAFE strategy – Surgery, Antibiotics, Face cleanliness and Environmental improvement – to eliminate trachoma, Fiona said.

But achieving behavioural change is  challenging, she said . Fiona cited the insights from a knowledge, attitudes and practice survey done to assess the barriers and enablers to people adopting the SAFE strategy. “Three things stood out,” she said . “One in five staff in clinics and one in three staff in schools were unaware that they  lived and worked in a trachoma-endemic area. They can’t help to eliminate it if they don’t know about it.”

She said half of these staff considered that it was “normal”  for children to have dirty faces. “It might feel awkward for non-indigenous  staff to encourage children to wipe their noses but this attitude of tolerance  is a health risk factor.” However, on the enabling side, 86 per cent of participants felt comfortable  talking about hygiene issues with others, she said.

A key aim of the social marketing was to remind people that the resources were there and how to use them – kits were sometimes left sitting  on shelves, she said, because of the high staff turnover in schools and  clinics.

While a full-scale evaluation of the Trachoma Story Kits  campaign was beyond the resources of the program, evaluation might be done in collaboration with other hygiene programs. “The ultimate measure of the kits’ effectiveness is seeing the numbers of clean faces going up and trachoma numbers going down,” she said.