Using comics to teach importance of vaccines
By Krista Habermehl, MA'05
Alien invaders are taking over cities, multiplying and turning citizens into zombies. Although the population fights back and, ultimately, overcomes the assailants, losses are significant. How will they protect themselves against future assaults?
While Immunity Warrior: Invasion of the Alien Zombies reads just like a classic space invasion story, the digital comic is actually an analogy for the influenza virus attacking the human body – and the protective role vaccines can play in defending against illness.
The comic was conceived by alumnus Dr. Kumanan Wilson, MD’93, after using a similar space invasion theme to describe immunizations to his son’s Grade 6 class.
“I needed to make the talk engaging and the space invasion analogy worked really well,” said Wilson, an internal medicine specialist and scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa. “Although I can’t be certain how much they understood – I got into very advanced topics – I do know they weren’t bored. That’s the one thing I could tell. They were actually engaged.”
The students’ positive response led Wilson, who’s been researching public health issues for the past 15 years, to question the broader approach to vaccine information dissemination and develop his own approach.
“It’s really hard to change adults’ minds about vaccines because, once you’re an adult, your opinions are largely set on a lot of things,” he said. “Here, I saw a class of generally interested students and thought maybe we should focus on giving them something fun and exciting on the topic – as opposed to preaching to them.”
Wilson, whose current research focuses on vaccine policy, safety and hesitancy, reached out to Algonquin College, which brought students from three different programs together to work on the project. He drafted a script, which the students then adapted to the motion comic book. The comic is partially funded through the College and Community Innovation Program and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
“The idea is kids don’t know they’re learning until they’re halfway through,” said Wilson. “Hopefully (the kids) will love the science and want to learn more or develop the next vaccine when they grow up. Maybe they will talk to their parents and encourage them to get their vaccinations up to date.”
Wilson also feels the approach can help turn what’s often a negative experience into something more positive. “Often, all kids know about vaccinations is there’s a shot in the arm – so it’s a negative childhood experience. Maybe they’re sensitized toward not supporting vaccinations and maybe we can counter that a bit by actually telling them what the vaccines do.”
A few years ago, Wilson developed an app called CANImmunize, aimed at helping parents track their kids’ immunizations using a smartphone. The app also allows for appointment reminders, information about vaccinations and has a downloadable PDF of Immunity Warriors. Since its launch, it has been downloaded more than 170,000 times. It is available on iTunes and Google Play.
“A lot of the vaccine arguments are chastising – with both sides saying the other is hurting children. Our focus is just to help everyday Canadians with practical issues around immunizations.”
While much of Wilson’s time is currently spent on research, he maintains a clinical practice as an adult internist and credits Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry for providing him with a strong clinical background.
“The clinical training was excellent and I’m still benefiting from that. As I get into doing more and more research, I do less clinical work, so it’s really important I have a strong clinical foundation, and Western clearly provided that. Had I not had that foundation, I think it would have been hard to do as much research as I am doing now and maintain my clinical proficiency.”
To view Immunity Warriors: Invasion of the Alien Zombies, visit immunitywarriors.com or view it through the Madefire Comics & Motion Books app or the CANImmunize app.