In a remote mountain village in Northern Laos, a crowd of 150 people gathers one evening. Many have traveled by foot from neighboring villages, eager to watch a new video drama featuring local Akha people.
The topic this evening is sexually transmitted infections (STIs). A new highway that winds through the region has brought not only development and commerce to the area—but also increasing rates of STIs and the prospect of HIV/AIDS.
“The Akha have sexual mores that have been exploited by people passing through the region,” says EDC’s Elliott Prasse-Freeman. “Villagers now have high rates of STIs. Given the explosion in cross-border trade and movement, there is a rising concern that this could become a hot spot of HIV infection.”
The Akha, an ethnic minority group isolated for centuries by geography and culture, are mostly unaware of STIs and how to prevent them. Government campaigns about reproductive health largely have passed them by, as the Akha have no written language and little infrastructure for official communication.
Outreach on the road
To reach the Akha in their own language, EDC developed a mobile outreach campaign involving video compact discs (VCDs). One VCD features a young Akha man coping with STIs. Shot by a Lao filmmaker with Akha performers, it includes local music and entertainment, as well as factual health information and prevention strategies. In 2007, the road show visited 53 villages in the region, reaching almost 13,000 people, about a third of the Akha population.
A doctor from the Lao Ministry of Health accompanies each performance, answering questions, distributing condoms, and providing treatment. Peer educators and village authorities lead Q&A sessions and offer prevention information. The project has also trained local pharmacists to recognize STI symptoms, prescribe antibiotics, and make referrals to the clinic.
The project is managed by EDC’s Health and Human Development Programs, funded by Deutsche Bank, and developed with Norwegian Church Aid. Staff hope to extend the project to other communities. “We have developed a powerful model for reaching ethnic minorities with accessible health information,” says Prasse-Freeman.
Originally published on January 1, 2008