Last updated: April 15. 2013 6:23PM - 1549 Views

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Graphic novel teaches teens about HIV/AIDS

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Looking for a new and more effective method for delivering important messages about HIV/AIDS to teens, University of South Carolina researchers turned to the graphic novel format.

Aiming for a story line that would grab those readers, they turned to students at the Department of Juvenile Justice for ideas. The result is “AIDS in the End Zone,” a graphic novel that relays a story of high school sports, teen jealousy and unprotected sex to teach about HIV/AIDS.

Kendra Albright and Karen Gavigan, research professors in USC’s school of library and information science, plan to give the graphic novel format a test drive this spring. They’ll talk with teens during special events at local library branches asking them questions about HIV/AIDS before and after they read the graphic novel.

“AIDS in the End Zone” certainly is a non-traditional way to get across a health safety message. Graphic novels use a comic book-like format to tell a story. At 34 pages, this one takes five to 10 minutes to read.

Albright is a believer in tailoring the message to the audience. During her HIV/AIDS research work in Africa, the most effective way to reach Ugandans was via radio and drama. That makes sense in a country with a strong tradition of oral history, she said.

Some efforts to disperse HIV/AIDS information to African-American adults in South Carolina have focused on barbershops and hair salons, where many topics traditionally have been discussed.

Albright and Gavigan thought graphic novels seemed appropriate for broaching HIV/AIDS talk with teens. They recruited illustrator Sarah Petrulis to ink the novel. Tailoring the message to the teen age group, however, seemed beyond the professors.

“What can two white, middle-aged women say to African-American teens that they will listen to?” Albright said.

For ideas, they went to the Department of Juvenile Justice’s school in Columbia, where about 900 students in grades 4-12 attend classes while incarcerated or detained. Over eight weeks of discussion, the students came up with characters, a plot and a moral message to go with the health lesson.

A new student moves to a fictional South Carolina town and takes over as the quarterback for the high school football team. The spoiled rich kid he replaces as quarterback plots to punish him. The former quarterback decides to set up the new guy with a young woman who only a few kids at the school know is HIV positive.

The students worked on character development, coming up with family backgrounds for each of the main characters. They offered suggestions to Petrulis on high school clothes and settings.

The messages dropped in along the way involve alcohol consumption, sexual abstinence, condom use, HIV testing and living with HIV/AIDS. Those messages can be found in plenty of other places — textbooks, brochures, pamphlets.

“But the existing items on HIV/AIDS are boring, and that makes a difference on what information they retain,” Gavigan said.

Some studies have found the knowledge retention from a graphic novel format was better than a textbook for young people. The USC study aims to test that idea on an important health topic.

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