18 September 2009

Medikidz comic heroes to help children understand diseases and treatment

Sam Lister

A team of comic-book superheroes living inside the human body is to be used to help children understand complex diseases affecting them or their parents and reduce fear surrounding treatment and side-effects.

A children’s medical publisher is to be launched this week in London, supported by leading paediatricians, celebrities and campaigners including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to tackle poor understanding of disease among the young.

The project, called Medikidz, will provide a range of comic books explaining diseases such as leukaemia, scoliosis, asthma and epilepsy that affect children, as well as those prevalent in adults, such as breast cancer and depression. A national catering company has ordered 100,000 advance copies of a title on childhood obesity for distribution in UK schools.

The superheroes include characters based on the cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems, the lungs, brain and skin and bone who take the reader on an adventure explaining their condition and the treatments they are likely to receive. Children will also be able to find out more from a website which will offer social networking to allow young patients to share their experiences.

The project, which will be launched at the Evelina Children’s Hospital at St Thomas’ Hospital on Wednesday, has been set up by two junior doctors frustrated by the lack of child-friendly information available. Backers include the musician Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas, Jacqueline Wilson, the children’s author, and Archbishop Tutu, who is due to address the launch.

The comic books are aimed at children between the ages of 8 and 15.

Kim Chilman-Blair, Medikidz founder, said that she had first noticed the problem while training in paediatrics at Otago Medical School in New Zealand. “I was looking after an eight-year old epileptic girl, and trying to explain her condition to her,” she said. “It was very difficult. I went and asked the consultant if there was any material that I could use, and there wasn’t anything. It started me thinking.

“When children fall ill they naturally look to adults for courage, comfort and explanation. In most cases these adults are unprepared and unqualified to deal with these situations and they have no useful information to give to young people to explain what is happening to them.”

Paediatricians said that they agreed that there was a paucity of engaging material for the young, with parents too often told of the problem and left to explain what was going on to their children. They said that being properly informed should be central to a child’s treatment.

Professor Ricky Richardson, a leading paediatrician and government adviser, said: “There is an enormous need to provide appropriate information about disease processes to children in a form they understand. Having this in comic book format and using social networking technology will be enormous step forward.”

Prof Richardson, who sees patients at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and Princess Margaret Hospital in Windsor, and is chair of the Medikidz medical advisory board, said.

“It moves the focus away from parents to children. The psychology of the relationship between parents and children can complicate things, because parents will naturally protect their children and may not pass on information to them. But in fact that child can gain much more from properly understanding where they are and what’s happening to them.”

Dr Chilman-Blair and Kate James, the company’s co-founder, said that the focus would also be on developing countries, with titles covering major paediatric diseases such as HIV/Aids and tuberculosis. Every book, which is designed by a former Marvel comic book writer, is subject to clinical peer review by paediatricians and specialist nurses.

Archbishop Tutu, a campaigner for health and human rights who has been particularly vocal in support of controlling TB and HIV, is known to be a keen supporter of the venture. He is scheduled to address the launch of the programme. He said: “It is extremely important that they feel reassured, informed and included during the diagnosis and treatment process, and this initiative should be supported for helping to achieve this,” he said.

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