We often say ‘community engagement is at the heart of what we do’. But why is it so important and what does it actually mean?
This recently published paper produced by our Communications and Engagement team in Brazil describes the framework for engaging with communities in Brazil during a large-scale deployment of the Wolbachia method in Niterói and Rio de Janeiro.
It explains that any effort to control the spread of mosquito-borne disease will require transparency with the people affected, and indeed their active participation. Eliminating breeding sites, for example, requires that residents prevent and remove puddles and pools of water in and around their homes. In our case, community participation typically takes the form of:
- the release of Wolbachia carrying mosquitoes
- rearing Wolbachia mosquito eggs
- hosting and monitoring mosquito traps
- forming local committees to monitor progress and facilitate discussion
As the paper points out, successful engagement is about ‘exchange’.
“With dialogue, people think together which assumes that the participant in the dialogue understands that his/her position is not the final one… It requires a deep capacity to listen.”
More than providing information and asking for people’s consent, community engagement should open the possibility for open dialogue between a cross-section of stakeholders to enable cooperation for the common good. After all, the people with whom we work aren’t passive recipients but key players in the improvement of their own public health environment.
By the end of 2019, our project in Brazil had reached around 1.2 million people. Three critical areas of the community were targeted in initial efforts to inform and involve them; public schools, the health sector and social leaders. These areas were chosen for their deep understanding of the local social landscape and the potential networks they could help to build.
In the case of schools, for example, our Brazil team created an e-book, several videos, pamphlets, posters and a digital platform for use by teachers in classrooms. In some cases, the monitoring and study of the development of mosquitoes was introduced to the school curriculum using resources provided by WMP.
Within the health sector, more than 1000 health workers were trained and 62 WhatsApp groups were created to assist in the dissemination of information and as a vehicle for discussion.
Another key component of the community engagement strategy is the creation of Community Reference Groups. In these group sessions, volunteer participants are free to debate, question, criticize and make suggestions. The groups provide a platform for dialogue between community representatives, scientists, health professionals and WMP staff.
And it works both ways. The groups also provide a valuable reference for our WMP teams to understand the main concerns and limitations before a release. They shine a light on the cultural dynamics of the region and allow us to rethink, readjust and offer better access to clearer information.
People living in places where mosquitoes spread disease face some formidable challenges. Unplanned urban development, changes in land use, the impacts of climate change, increases in international mobility all help assist the spread of arboviruses. The only path to success against them is cooperation. Working together at all levels of society. We have the solution, we have the science and we believe we have the model to equip the people most at risk with the tools to effectively protect themselves