Worm hunters: A comic book to tell science stories

Date: 28 March 2018

The Worm Hunters project is an integrated whipworm egg collection and schools engagement programme in Colombia. One key engagement element was a comic book written for local school children.

Dr María Duque-Correa is an NC3Rs Fellow in the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s Parasite Genomics group, where she is studying the human whipworm (Trichuris trichiura). María developed the Worm Hunters project with our Public Engagement team, to produce an integrated whipworm egg collection and schools engagement programme. The project took place in Ciénaga, a town on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where the whipworm infection rate in children is 50%.

Hear more about the Worm Hunters project from María herself!

For any public engagement project to be effective, it is important to gain a full understanding of the people you will be working with. The Worm Hunters project took advantage of María’s Colombian background, and the knowledge of her collaborators at the University of Antioquia, to set the scene in Ciénaga, and the Public Engagement team’s experience of developing engagement and education projects to co-design the education programme.

María and the team wanted to use a mixture of approaches to effectively engage the community in Ciénaga with her research and encourage participation in the study. They decided to develop a comic book that the children could work through in school and that would be used alongside complementary, hands-on activities in the classroom, such as having the children use microscopes (for the first time ever!) to look at whipworms and their eggs, and a glitter hand gel to explore how hand washing can prevent the spread of infections. This approach helped the children to explore the worm’s biology and understand why María needed stool samples from them. In addition, it enabled them to share what they learnt with their families, increasing the likelihood of them providing samples for María’s study, and helping them to avoid whipworm infection in the future.

Wormhunters winning COmic Award at ISNTD Festival 2018The comic book was designed by Public Engagement’s Laura Olivares Boldú, and contains a combination of information about the human whipworm and activities to reinforce learning. It also features a comic strip featuring María, her research collaborators and the school children themselves, describing her research project and how she would use their samples.
And we’re delighted to say that the Worm Hunters comic is now an award-winning resource, having won best comic at the International Society for Neglected Tropical Diseases Festival Awards 2018!
Laura and the team had to think carefully about the elements of the comic, and how the children might feel about being infected with whipworm or other parasites. In the video below Laura discusses her experiences of developing the comic:

The blended approach to the Worm Hunters project not only resulted in a fun, engaging experience for the researchers and pupils who took part, but also had a number of other benefits. Previous deworming programmes run in the same community have had a participation rate of 50%. In contrast, participation in this project was around 90%. This has demonstrated to Maria’s collaborators how an intense programme of public engagement activities can not only benefit the communities they work with, but also have a direct impact on the success of their research.

In my opinion, when delivering the information to children in a simple way in which they can identify themselves, which is what we tried to do with the comic, they feel they are part of the research too. Moreover, they are more open to sharing their experiences about getting sick, they agree to blood being taken, drinking the medicine (which can taste horrible!), bringing the stool samples and, importantly, they return to continue learning and involving the rest of their family and friends
María Duque-Correa, Wellcome Sanger Institute

Beyond the local impact of the project, the Worm Hunters team have been using blogs, videos and social media to share their experiences with a wider audience, including other parasite researchers interested in how this approach could benefit them and their research practice.

The Worm Hunters project is not over! The team to continue sharing what is happening with the research now they are back at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, where they are harvesting whipworms from the eggs they collected from the Colombian samples. Keep up with all their latest news on Twitter and Facebook via @WormHunters.

María’s journey to Ciénaga in February 2018 and her experiences of undertaking sample collection, delivering deworming treatments, and inspiring the next generation of Worm Hunters are documented on the project website www.wormhunters.org Take a look!