Not all heroes wear capes: Educating young people about antibiotic resistance can play a vital role in saving the world from superbugs

1st September 2020

Superbugs are a big issue everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more so than in India, where an estimated 58,000 babies die every year from drug-resistant infections passed on from their mothers. Superheroes Against Superbugs (SaS) explain how they are striving to build a community dedicated to tackle the growing threat of antibiotic resistant-infections in India, and beyond...

When we set out to develop a public engagement initiative on antibiotic resistance, or ‘superbugs’, with school children, one of the often-asked questions was “why children?” The prevalent notion is that the message should reach parents first, as they are the primary decision-makers. However, we believe that children make perfect agents of change for an issue like antibiotic resistance, which is central to their future and wellbeing.

Superheroes Against Superbugs (SaS), as the title suggests, is a call-to-action for young people as it partners with school children in India to raise awareness on superbugs. We believe that much like the superheroes they adore, young people are capable of influencing behaviours around them and bringing about transformative change in society, when equipped with right information and tools. To achieve this, the program uses both innovative science education methods and creative engagement approaches to enable them to contribute towards raising public awareness on superbugs.

SaS program has been designed to be hands-on, experiential and most importantly, fun. The 3-day workshops help our young participants to understand scientific concepts surrounding microbes, infections, antibiotics and resistance through games and activities as well as discussions with scientists and health professionals. These conversations also encourage them to appreciate the societal as well as environmental aspects of superbugs. Through interactions with their parents and local pharmacies, the program also helps them to reflect on their own experiences surrounding antibiotic usage in their families and communities.

Once equipped with knowledge and understanding of superbugs, the young participants are encouraged to create stories on an aspect of the issue that they relate to. One of the tools they are trained to use to express these stories is grassroots comics, a powerful medium for self-expression. These simple black and white comics are their unique message to the world. They highlight its key challenges while maintaining an optimistic undertone. Children also have the distinct capability to simplify and humanise a complex issue through their imagination and creativity, thereby making it more accessible and relatable. By harnessing the inherent enthusiasm and creativity of children and enabling them to spread awareness through their own work, SaS attempts to make children a key participant in addressing this global health crisis that concerns their future.

SaS is easy to reproduce, cost-effective and can easily be scaled up. The success of the initiative can be measured not only through the delightful comics portrayed by children but also the feedback by participants on how it made them think about alternate sources of meat, or implementing a healthy hand washing programme in their schools or being mindful of antibiotic misuse and overuse.

SaS offers many lessons for community engagement on antibiotic resistance: for instance, we observed that children from different socio-economic backgrounds related to the issues differently, indicating that the engagement and health messaging strategy must change for different audiences. It is also important that such programs are conducted in local languages for meaningful engagement with wider communities. A strategy that enables continuous learning and engagement is important to help children stay connected with the issue.

As the world slowly recognises the role young people can play in social movements and in shaping discourses, empowering them with knowledge and creating platforms for them to meaningfully engage with issues that shape their health and wellbeing is crucial. The key message of SaS is that we all need to become superheroes in this fight against superbugs as much as we need our scientists and doctors to come up with new strategies to combat this issue. Children and young people can be the catalysts for change to address this global health challenge.

Ponnari Gottipati, PhD, Co-lead, Superheroes Against Superbugs with inputs from the SaS team: Dr Sarah Iqbal, Dr Madhuri Dutta and Dr Somdatta Karak. Click here to find out more

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