In Valledupar’s suburbs, Colombia, a group of people gets together every week sitting at the front of one of the houses in Bello Horizonte’s neighbourhood. All of them wear a green t-shirt that carries the message “Health Community Committee, CAZ project”.

This is one of the community groups that is taking part in the Community Action on Zika (CAZ) project, that the Colombian Red Cross started implementing in 2016. This project was implemented in the departments that were recording the highest index of presence of the mosquito that transmits the Zika virus, the Aedes aegypti.

In the municipality of Valledupar, which is especially vulnerable to epidemics caused by the mosquito, the Cesar Red Cross Branch worked in coordination with the Health Secretariat to identify the communities with the highest record of infections.

In Bello Horizonte, we walked the neighbourhood’s 24 blocks with a megaphone, inviting the community to share a space with us, where we would explain the Red Cross’ mandate, the CAZ project, and understand what the needs of the community were.

Only two people showed up at that first meeting. But then, thanks to the grapevine, more people joined, and we could train 12 people and create what today is the Committee” recalls Jenifer Dias Lopez, the CAZ project coordinator for the Cesar Red Cross Branch.

Bello Horizonte’s Health Committee implements awareness initiatives and community-based surveillance and monitoring activities. The Committee’s members carry out household visits with the aim of inspecting homes and their surroundings to monitor mosquito breeding sites. They also inform the population on how to stop the mosquitoes from reproducing and what measures the population should take to prevent getting sick with Zika.

Niunjar Rojas Moreno, the Committee’s president, explains: “During the first monitoring activity we discovered standing water deposits and breeding sites in many houses. To date, ninety percent of the houses have improved. We were able to establish a rapport with the community, and nowadays they alone are taking care of themselves and of their surroundings, and they share the information with their neighbours so that we can all be aware of the vector.

The work was difficult at the beginning, as we had never had committees in the community, nor had we dealt with the topic of health. Thanks to the process that we developed, we are creating awareness in the population and today everyone recognises that it’s a plus.

The Committee comprises a dozen members, including women, men, seniors, youth and children. Jeider, the youngest amongst them, is only 8 years old and is very passionate about the project: “I support the surveillance activities and I feel good because I help people. I inform them that to avoid getting sick they should clean water tanks, get rid of old tyres and empty water storage deposits. I tell them about the symptoms of the disease and how to prevent getting sick, especially pregnant women during the first three months of pregnancy. I also explain the project to them.

Tomasa Fragoso, another Committee Member who got involved upon a friend’s invitation, reflects upon the changes brought by the project and the committee at the individual and community level. “This process changed me deeply because I didn’t have all the knowledge I have now before. I didn’t know, for example, that the mosquito’s eggs can survive for up to a year. Now I know the mosquitos’ lifecycle steps and I know that it’s very important to clean up more. My home is only made of tin and wood, but it doesn’t matter, it’s clean and free from standing water and breeding sites.

I use this knowledge for myself, but I also try to share it with the community, to those that want to listen. Many of them understood, they took our advice – they realized that the danger is real and are acting upon it.

The CAZ project ended its second year of implementation in September and will continue for a third year in Colombia and other four countries in Latin America. Bello Horizonte’s community is one amongst 75 communities that mobilized in Colombia, and amongst 190 communities that mobilized together across five countries to fight the Zika virus and other arboviruses.

I observed a drastic change in this community. At the beginning, people were motivated but unsure and insecure. Thanks to a continuous presence and recurring interventions, and a dynamic learning process, the community became assertive.

We were able to increase the community’s capacity of response, so that if something happens again in the future, they already know what to do”, stresses Yuri Arias, a Red Cross volunteer that was involved in the process of creating and strengthening Bello Horizonte’s Community Health Committee since the beginning.

Building capacity at the community level is precisely the focus of the work of Red Cross Societies from Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The aim is to strengthen the response in Health and reduce the impact of future outbreaks, both at the local and at the national level.