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Armed white blood cells firing antibody missiles at alien invaders (influenza virus) in Immunity Warriors: Invasion of the Alien Zombies, developed by students at Algonquin College and The Ottawa Hospital mHealth Research Team.

Immunity Warriors: A new Ottawa Hospital project is changing the way youth learn about immunization

By Apartment613 on February 14, 2017

By Michelle Di Cintio

Alien invaders attack a city and overpower the populace, turning them into zombies! The plot of this new online comic sounds like the start of an excellent sci-fi narrative, but the concept originates closer to home: our own immune systems. Immunity Warriors: Invasion of the Alien Zombies is the brainchild of Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a doctor at the Ottawa Hospital and a professor at the University of Ottawa.

While giving a presentation at his son’s elementary school, Dr. Wilson found the students became very engaged with his space invasion metaphors and decided to take the concept a step further. In this case, that meant heading 15 minutes away to Algonquin College, to find some partners in crime. Dr. Wilson paired up with three illustrators from the Graphic Design Program and one web architect from the Interactive Media Design program to create a new comic book.

“I’ve written a lot of papers in my life but I think something like this could have more effect.”

Dr. Wilson specializes in dealing with immunization and vaccine hesitancy. “It’s really hard to change adults’ minds on this topic. By the time they become adults they’ve got very deeply entrenched opinions on things and the children seem much more open-minded.” The final concept of a digital comic book was immediately appealing. “It’s an innovative way to engage students. I’ve written a lot of papers in my life but I think something like this could have more effect,” he says.

Armed white blood cells firing antibody missiles at alien invaders (influenza virus) in Immunity Warriors: Invasion of the Alien Zombies, developed by students at Algonquin College and The Ottawa Hospital mHealth Research Team.

Armed white blood cells firing antibody missiles at alien invaders (influenza virus) in Immunity Warriors: Invasion of the Alien Zombies, developed by students at Algonquin College and The Ottawa Hospital mHealth Research Team.

A colourful, interactive, animated comic tells the story of an alien invasion that destroys cities and turns citizens into zombies. This is how actual viruses work – invading cells and taking them over to produce more of the virus, to spread the infection quickly. The cities fight back with squadrons that represent specialized cells in our immune system – the NKC (natural killer cells), macrophages, and T cells. The scientists on Earth determine vaccines will lead them to victory – a way to fight against the attackers before they even arrive, making Earth’s army much more efficient. The artwork depicts the viruses and cells realistically, and provides a visual explanation of how the cells look and act within our immune systems.

The script was written by Dr. Wilson, who had to make his narrative fit the science so that it was both relatable and informative. Illustration held its own challenges. “We had three people drawing, and we each have our own drawing styles. So it was about melding it all into one cohesive style so that… the whole look of the comic book is cohesive,” explained Stéphanie Paiement, one of the illustrators.

Dr. Wilson ended up giving his new colleagues lessons on immunization. Dom Richichi, another illustrator, said, “We had to learn pretty deeply how the human body works. We had to turn cells which are kind of organic, they’re all pretty much circular… but we had to turn them into unique pieces for the story, to make them differ between one another. Make one of them look like a good cell and then a bad cell, it was very interesting.”

“I think the people at Algonquin did an amazing job,” Dr. Wilson says. “It was a real collaborative effort. A good example of partnership between scientists and bright young students… When I write something on paper and then I see the amazing visuals they put to it.. it was just great to see that.”

Dr. Kumanan Wilson and grade 7 students from Broadview Public School.

Dr. Kumanan Wilson and grade 7 students from Broadview Public School.

“It’s really hard to change adults’ minds on this topic. By the time they become adults they’ve got very deeply entrenched opinions on things and the children seem much more open-minded.”

The next step, Dr. Wilson says, is to get this work into the school curriculum. Even if the takeaway is nothing more than students becoming more interested in science and technology rather than the immune system, Dr. Wilson will be happy. “I’m very proud to be part of this and I’m very happy that Algonquin did such an outstanding job.”

His colleagues definitely agree. Richichi says, “Just seeing the difference it’s going to have, especially for the kids… I would definitely love to help out with more stuff like this; because it definitely has a great cause to it.” Paiement agrees, “It’s a really great way, especially for this project, for kids to learn and just be educated in a really fun way… It was a great experience, I know the whole team, we really loved working on this with Dr. Wilson and I think we’re all really proud of the way it came out.”