Page last updated at 23:29 GMT, Saturday, 19 September 2009 00:29 UK

The superheroes fighting disease

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Skinderella - can morph into a skeleton and knows all about skin and bone

When a 12-year-old patient asked for help understanding his newly diagnosed leukaemia, Dr Kate Hersov knew she had a problem.

"He said 'I can hardly pronounce it, let alone understand it," she said.

Growing increasingly frustrated by what she perceived as a worrying lack of child-focused information, she and fellow medic Dr Kim Chilman-Blair teamed up to produce a series of superhero comics, designed to educate.

"Often when we made a diagnosis of a young child we felt helpless that we had nothing to give the child themselves to understand what we had just told them," she said.

Comic book heroes

"Kim had one particular patient, an eight-year-old girl called Wendy, who had epilepsy and had just been diagnosed.

"After she was diagnosed she just looked at Kim forlornly and said: 'Is there nothing I can read'?

"There was nothing out there we could give her - nothing for the young patients themselves.

Parents sometimes feel that children are too young to understand medical concepts, or that they are better off not knowing
Dr Kim Chilman-Blair

"So it was out of our frustration as clinicians that we created Medikidz.

"We knew children needed a place to go to understand the medicine, whether that be the diagnosis, medicines or treatment procedures."

The 'Medikidz' are a gang of five larger-than-life superheroes, designed to educate children through a wide range of media.

One element is an interactive website featuring a virtual world of the human body which the child can explore and the opportunity to create their own avatar (virtual identity) to talk to other children about their condition.

Dr Chilman-Blair said: "Parents sometimes feel that children are too young to understand medical concepts, or that they are better off not knowing.

"The Medikidz programme wants to change this view.

"We don't sugar-coat serious problems, we provide clear and factual information in a way that is easy to understand and engaging to read.

"We want the children who use Medikidz to be in control of their illness."

Covering disease

Both doctors want eventually to cover 300 paediatric conditions, but have launched this week with the first ten - including Type 1 diabetes, epilepsy, leukaemia and asthma.

In the asthma comic book the newly diagnosed Max Bond is taken on a tour of his lungs, while the superheroes Chi, Skinderella, Gastronomic, Pump and Axon explain how and why his lungs malfunction and the drugs that can be used to help.

Chi - knows all about the lungs
Axon - the brain specialist and Abacus his counting pet robot
Pump - makes your pulse race with his superhuman strength and speed
Skinderella, who can morph into a skeleton and knows all about skin and bone
Gastronomic - who knows all about the 'bum, tum and tubes in between'

Kim Gillberg, health promotion manager at Asthma UK, said the project had the potential to provide a valuable tool to help children.

"It's important that children and young people are given options in the way they access health information and we fully support the use of engaging and interactive materials," she said.

"The essential thing is that the information provided is accurate, positive and empowers children and young people to be able to manage long-term medical conditions, such as asthma, effectively."

All the comic books are peer reviewed and have input from play specialists, nurses and often charities.

Pump - a superhero
Pump - has superhuman strength and speed

Dr Chilman-Blair said the first editions would be aimed at the 10-15 age group, but that they also plan a story board format for younger children.

"We chose the graphic novel or comic because it is appealing to children of a wide age group from childhood up to adulthood," she said.

Books cost £5.99 each and are available through the website, but the doctors hope that they will eventually be widely distributed.

"I would like to see a Medikidzs comic book given to every kid when they are diagnosed", said Dr Hersov.

Grenville Fox, clinical director at the Evelina Children's Hospital, where the comics were launched said they could be invaluable.

"For a lot of children, spending time in hospital and dealing with their illness can be a daunting experience." he said.

"This can be made easier for them by providing them with information in a way they can understand and relate to.

"The Medikidz characters and leaflets are a great way for our patients to learn about their bodies and illnesses in a fun and accessible way."

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