Wednesday, September 3, 2008
A Family Field Trip
Innovative and Interactive Exhibit Shows Future of Health Education
Seated in front of a large screen, my younger siblings grab hold of the controllers and attack the microbes and foreign particles that enter the blood stream. “Look Marco I’m a macrophage” - atypical words flowing from the mouth of a soon to be seven year old. Yet this is the future - both in HIV awareness and our population. Here at the Liberty Science Center’s “Infection Connection” children and teens get a highly interactive and stimulating approach to learn about the body’s immune system, various viruses that attack it, and social issues surrounding particular infections.
The video game lasts several minutes but it’s obvious their interest has been peaked. When the game ends they briefly argue as to whose role was more important – the macrophage who engulfs the pathogen and calls for the T-cell or the T-cell which does the “killing”. As we watch the brief 5 minute HIV video the real winner is revealed. Both children have a sense of how the HIV virus enters the body and can cause AIDS. As we see the T-Cells slowly wiped out, they know that the immune system is losing its “power” and defense mechanisms. The video focuses heavily on the science behind the virus utilizing clear language and visual effects. It also includes important statements which highlight the stark reality behind global HIV – highest percentage of infections worldwide are in sub-Saharan Africa, 11.4 million AIDS orphans in Africa alone, and 1.6 million deaths worldwide in 2007.
The video does not harp on transmission because the audience may be too young for so much at once, but the science behind the virus and some context of global implications seemed to stick with both siblings. Venturing by myself I found several miniature exhibits each one dedicated to noted diseases, such as influenza, lymes, and malaria. Of particular interest was “Bedroom Secrets”, which focused on sexually transmitted infections, condom usage, monogamy, and opening communication lines. Press a button next to one of the pictures and hear a teenager talk about a visit to the doctor’s office. The section uses accessible language, drawings of real life situations, and subtle tones of prevention, awareness, and responsible actions. Tucked away in a corner it gives a sense of privacy to absorb its messages from peers and professionals.
In each of the countries I have participated in awareness work through the organization documented. In India, I played a UNICEF board game geared toward harm reduction and HIV awareness. In Nicaragua, I passed out pamphlets and condoms as clowns gathered an audience for a show on HIV transmission methods. In these endeavors and pursuits the goal is to change the near future by educating and working in the present. The mentality in each location is linear and direct. Increase awareness of how the virus does and does not spread, thereby decreasing stigma, number of new infections, and thus reducing the number of people on treatment.
Discussing and explaining the issues and facts behind HIV in such an interactive and science based approach made the lesson come to life. In place of a lecture, a general understanding of the basic foundation is gained in an engaging and de-stigmatizing manner. I could not help but wonder what effect this type of programming could have in some of the resource poor settings where I have traveled - areas where displays of technology, such as a slideshow or PowerPoint presentation, generate crowds from intrigue or relative limited access. The potential for such programs is far reaching, especially when geared to specific populations and taking into account cultural and social norms. A future blog will be dedicated to one such model developed in the USA being tested in India.
Back at the Liberty Science Center I finish the infectious disease train ride which highlights interviews of people living with TB, Dengue, and HIV in countries of high prevalence. As I exit my train car a clear and powerful message is announced - “choices we make as individuals, communities, and governments weigh heavily on the lives of others. Are you part of the problem or the solution? The future is unwritten”. The future is unwritten and with more interactive and accessible programming and continuing the course of governments, corporations, and NGOs working together the complex problems presented by the global HIV pandemic can be reversed and addressed.