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Telling stories, saving lives

By: James Giggaher
18 March, 2010

The story begins with a young student who is curious about a mysterious and deadly virus. A scientist appears, and he and the student enter a space ship. Shrunken to a miniscule size - small enough to be injected into the human body - they commence a fantastical journey through the human bloodstream.

Suddenly, the student and the scientist encounter the virus which travels rapidly, searching for white blood cells. Entering these cells, the virus replicates over and over again, eventually destroying the host. As more and more of the cells perish, the immune system begins to fail and the body eventually shuts down. Fleeing the devastation, the scientist and the student exit the human body.

It sounds like a science fiction story for children - a cross between Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Inner Space. However, as entertaining as this tale is, it is also based in real, hard science. And all for good reason - the story is an attempt to get a message to young South Africans before HIV/ AIDS can get to them.

It forms part of a science show that has been developed by PhD researcher and science communicator Graham Walker, who is based in the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. As part of his doctoral studies Walker has been researching the emotional, motivational and behavioural impacts of science shows. The show, which forms a component of his research, is also the product of a long collaboration between ANU and the UniZul Science Centre in Zululand - which is situated in the middle of an area with the highest HIV infection rate globally.

As part of a wider intervention led by the UniZul Science Centre, the science show aims to give early high school students an entertaining yet serious account that details the science of HIV. Walker has developed it with long-time friend Derek Fish from UniZul. Through the story its creators hope to better inform young South Africans about the behaviours that spread HIV/AIDS and how they can avoid the virus.

"The story and the science show aim to protect young people as well as encourage preventative behaviours," explains Walker. "This type of intervention is pretty unique territory for science centres, but obviously there is a great human need to try new kinds of interventions. The show is the first of its kind for Africa to my knowledge. 

"What we are trying to do is to reach out to kids before they are sexually active and reach them with a message that is based on science. The idea is to help them understand what HIV is, how it is transmitted, and what are the behaviours that will keep you safe and put you at risk. If we can get that across in an engaging way then hopefully we will see a difference."

The show has been specifically designed with a theatrical dimension - Walker is well aware that this is the best way to really have an impact on his young audiences. Highlighting that science communication has gone through a number of paradigms, Walker explains that previous presentation models have often proved inadequate or ineffective.

"What the literature and the research tell us is that we need a more engaging, more interactive process and a process that does not just blast the audience with the science but gives it to them in a way that they are going to engage with.

"We wanted to get all the science and behaviours across but we didn't want it to be a lecture or a talk on HIV. So the show incorporates demonstrations and theatrics like a lot of science shows do, but we knew that it would not work just as a straight-up science show - that's where the story and characters come in.

"It certainly contains the serious hard-hitting messages where they are necessary but not to the point where the kids just switch off. This has been a big problem in previous solutions that have been tried in South Africa."

Walker also points out that a traditional message of doom and gloom has only made kids switch off in South Africa. He believes that this doesn't help the situation at all. In contrast, even though Graham's show is still in development, to date it has had strong and positive feedback from its audiences.

Walker has written a lot of science shows in his time; however, he claims that this one was, and will remain by far and away, the most challenging. He points out that the show will need to overcome a lot of problems still inherent to South Africa.

"So far the show has primarily been delivered to better-off students in South Africa," explains Walker. "What we haven't done is perform the show for disadvantaged rural communities who are the real target audiences because that is where the problem is most prevalent.

"Adapting to this audience will be a challenge. One way to overcome this will be to get Zulu presenters to deliver the show in the native language. A history of racism and racial segregation - not to mention my Zulu skills - definitely mean that the show won't be presented by a white authority figure like me. Rather it will be performed by trained locals who are more on the level with the audience and can work it in with their culture, their backgrounds and their realities."

Another difficulty that the science show will need to overcome is the level of misinformation regarding HIV/ AIDS in South Africa. Walker points out that whilst South Africa has had an ongoing problem with the disease, the mistakes made by Government in the past as well as a long history of denial have only exacerbated the situation. In conjunction, failed interventions of the past and prevalent socio-cultural beliefs, have also contributed to the tragically high incidence and death rates in the country.

"Here in Australia we tend to possess an implicit trust in western science and western medicine," says Walker. "However in South Africa, particularly in the more traditional societies, it is different.

"They have different belief systems and there has even been research published which outlines that a belief in ancestral protection among the Zulu makes them believe that they will be protected from HIV. Whilst that is an extreme example and less relevant to kids, you are up against a lot of challenges to break down misconceptions."

Added to all of this is the fact that discussing HIV/ AIDS is still largely taboo in South African society.

Whilst Walker does agree that science shows do play a part in breaking down mistaken beliefs and communicating the real science, he has had to temper his hope with a distinct sense of realism.

"We do know that science breaks misconceptions down but we are still up against a lot of resistance," he says. "For example, in the pilot evaluation of the show we had one student come back with the comment that they really enjoyed the show, but asked why we were showing them [the children] made-up stuff that did not exist."

It is these kids that Walker and his show are so desperately trying to reach out to, and he is not about to stop - he will keep telling his tales.

Graham's work has already seen him travel to South Africa four times - the last two trips involved co-writing, developing and performing this particular show to a range of audiences.

Between March and May 2010 Graham will return to South Africa to not only help Zulu presenters take the show to specific audiences, but to also measure the impact of the show on young people. His research will seek to determine what young people learn from the show and how this translates into shifting attitudes, motivations and behaviours.

"I guess a really important aspect of this research is to find out how the show is working and just as significantly how it is not working so that we can improve, and also so that we can provide evidence to people funding this kind of thing that it is worth investing money in. Whilst there is a lot of investment going into HIV intervention, we feel that science centres can play a more novel role in this.

"Any work in Africa has its challenges and this promises to be trickier than anything I have ever done before," he says. "But the potential human benefit is just so profound."

Source: Australian National University

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