The ABCs of HIV/Aids

July 19, 2002

Fran Balkwill does not let her 'day job' leading cancer research keep her from her passion - conveying the stories of science to children. She spoke to Claire Sanders.

For Fran Balkwill, a prominent cancer researcher, science "is full of good stories". Her desire to tell these stories - particularly to children - sets her apart from many scientists.

Balkwill is working on two major projects, one involving children in Africa, the other involving children in East London. That is on top of what she describes as her "day job" - running Cancer Research UK's Translational Oncology Laboratory at Queen Mary's School of Medicine.

On Tuesday, she will be in South Africa to launch her book Staying Alive Fighting HIV/Aids . She will share the platform with Edwin Cameron, a prominent jurist who has fought for more government intervention in South Africa's HIV/Aids crisis. The book is based on a consultation exercise in schools, orphan villages and squatter camps in KwaZulu/Natal, Johannesburg and Pretoria. "The children are so worried," she says. "We had their undivided attention."

The book uses a picture drawn by Nelson Makhonya from Johannesburg. "His picture of a person before and after getting HIV/ Aids showed clearly that he understood what the disease does to people," Balkwill says.

The fact that there are 28 million people infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa is made all the more tragic by the knowledge that the disease is so easily avoidable. The book, like previous prizewinning books Balkwill has written for children, uses scientific terminology to explain the basis of the disease. "If children can say 'computer', they can say 'dendritic cell'," she says. "If all children take away is familiarity with some basic terms, then I am happy."

Staying Alive Fighting HIV/Aids spells out how easily the HIV virus can be avoided and how it is spread - although it does not mention homosexual sex. "In the consultation exercise, we were advised firmly against that," Balkwill says. "It is a taboo subject, and it was felt that the basic message of the book would be lost. And it should be clear that if you catch HIV from vaginal sex - then you catch it from anal sex."

The book also touches on anti-retroviral drugs. "People with HIV/Aids who take these drugs live longer, healthier lives, and are less likely to pass the virus on," it says. But its central message is preventive. "Use a condom - it just could save your LIFE".

The book has had to counter widespread myths, such as the belief that having sex with a virgin will protect against the disease, as well as a general distrust of condoms.

What is harder to fight is the despair that underlies many young people's view of life. "We asked people in the squatter camps and orphanages what they wanted to do with their lives. They just looked at us blankly - what is there to do?" she says. "And some have the attitude that if they have HIV, they want to take their friends with them."

Balkwill also leads the development of Queen Mary's Centre of the Cell, which is part of the School of Medicine and Dentistry's new building in Whitechapel. This interactive biomedical science centre for local children will be set in a cell-shaped pod. So far, the school has been given £70,000 by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. As the centre will need £4 million, a fundraising programme has been launched. Balkwill hopes the centre will be a prototype that will be replicated elsewhere.

To ensure that the centre will engage children, Balkwill has worked with the drama department as well as with scientists. "When the children arrive in the mini-lab, they will be introduced to 'Stem', who will act as their guide on the tour," she says. Medical students will be on hand to talk the children through the centre. Children will enter into the role-play and proceed through the centre dressed as "bio-nauts", with a mission pack that they have to complete.

Balkwill's passion for communicating science began when she worked with the geneticist Sir Walter Bodmer, an outspoken public educator who is now principal of Hertford College, Oxford. "About 20 years ago, it was very much frowned on to believe in communicating science. If you popularised science, you were seen as a second-rate individual," she says.

It was Sir Walter who invited her to do children's lectures. From there came her interest in books. And, finding no serious science books for children, she decided to write her own, working with the illustrator Mic Rolph. Her books Cell Wars and Cells Are Us won the 1991 Copus/Science Museum science book prize in the children's category and have been translated into several languages.

Balkwill's experience with children is that stories from science need little embellishment to fascinate. "When children are ill, they love to look at the picture of the virus that is making them ill," she says. "It helps them understand what is happening to them."

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