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Zombie Pandemic! Comic books and public health communications from the CDC

Can a comic book help you prepare for hurricane season?

What about bioterrorism? Or a natural disaster?

What about a zombie pandemic?

Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic comic from CDCIn the 21st century, using comics in education stretches far beyond the campus or the classroom. Health organisations around the world are increasingly looking towards comic strips as a medium for public health communication.

The ‘graphic medicine’ movement had a cover feature in the 2010 British Medical Journal, looking at a range of applications – from training doctors to understand patients’ healthcare experience through to public information and outreach programmes.

Last year, America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published an unusual educational comic called Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic.

In it, everyday folk caught up in an apparent attack by the walking dead turn to the CDC for advice and support.

I caught up with Maggie Silver of the CDC communications office to find out more, and to make sure I’m ready for the coming zombie apocalypse.

Despite the vogue for zombies in pop culture, few public health professionals ever expect to find themselves preparing for the Night of the Living Dead.

Maggie Silver is one of the few people who can say she’s done just that in her work for a US federal agency.

Blame the Fukushima disaster in Japan – not for a coming zombie apocalypse, but for prompting Maggie to find new ways to educate Americans about diaster preparedness.

Back in 2011, Maggie realised that the CDC needed to capture the public’s imagination with something beyond the usual dry factsheets and, inspired by social media, she hit on the notion of preparing for a zombie infestation.

‘The project came into being as a response to Fukushima. No-one was listening to our messages about preparing for such a disaster. On Twitter we asked members of the public what emergency they wanted to prepare for – many people jokingly mentioned zombies!”

Despite its name, the CDC covers a range of emergency roles, from responding to bioterror attacks such as the 2001 anthrax case to providing medical supplies in the wake of a disaster.

In the Zombie Pandemic comic, published late last year, the federal agency provides information to the public about the zombie virus, supports local health departments in responding to the threat, and even helps to develop and distribute a zombie vaccine.

‘We actually saw the zombie theme as a way to get the public to prepare themselves for hurricane season,’ Maggie explained. ‘The same advice applies to both zombie survival and real-life events like hurricanes.’

As I mentioned in my recent blog on copywriting, public sector organisations often struggle to engage their audiences in a straightforward way, but the CDC’s zombie comic shows how it’s possible to make even the practical business of packing some emergency supplies exciting.

‘Social media is for direct engagement with an audience, and in this project it’s been a great tool to talk one on one, get direct feedback and find inspiration. It’s great to marry creativity with our daily tasks,’ Maggie told me during our phone call. ‘My supervisor Dave Daigle gave me free rein to be creative. The comic was drawn by our in-house Creative Services Department, who usually design posters and flyers.’

Panel from Zombie Pandemic comic, CDC

Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic is a fun, compelling comic which doesn’t let its mission to inform get in the way of a surprising number of thrills and twists. Real life figures like the CDC’s Director of Public Health Preparedness and Response Dr. Ali S. Khan are slipped into the world of Julie and Todd, a young couple who find themselves trying to survive the rise of the walking dead.

Maggie admitted she had no particular experience with comics prior to scripting Zombie Pandemic.

‘On my Master’s course in public health, I saw comics being used to teach Hispanic communities about HIV, using pictorial representation for people with limited English skills, but that was it. I have a friend who teaches high schoolers and uses comics in the classroom – so any exposure I had to comic books was via her.’

With the recent spate of cannibalistic crimes which have been reported as ‘zombie attacks’, Maggie recognises that the lighthearted subject matter of this official publication could be sensitive in some quarters.

All-Hazards Emergency Kit - CDC - from Zombie Pandemic comic

The CDC’s All-Hazards Emergency Kit – a checklist to prepare you for anything from hurricane season to a zombie uprising.

‘There’s a tight line that we’ve been walking on this project – the message of the zombie comic is not completely light-hearted and it’s essential that we always refer back to real emergencies. We represent a scientific government agency, yet we also want to avoid the typical boring fact sheets.

We hope people visit our site, take a moment and see it’s about disaster preparedness.’

Looking to the future, there’s an animated version of Zombie Pandemic on the way, and beyond that, Maggie’s team find themselves asking – ‘How do we ever top zombies?’

In a way I’m afraid – the question gives me visions of giant monster attacks, flying saucer invasions, even a conspiracy by intelligent ants.

Yet Maggie’s commitment and confidence leave me feeling reassured, both from a communications perspective – the CDC are ‘always looking to break out of the rigid government mould and find new ways to connect with the public’ – and that of someone awaiting the next geek apocalypse.

Excerpt from Zombie Pandemic comic, CDC

To find out more, visit the CDC website and read the Zombie Pandemic comic online.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is a really interesting topic. So many organizations think comics by themselves appeal to people–especially children–and then pay no attention to the content. I have read a terrible official EU comics called, Dirty Water (I read it in German as Truebe Wasser), that was supposed to show kids how the parliamentary process works. But it managed to come across like a bureaucratic holodeck adventure that was very sensible and grounded in the real world except for some added “suspense.”

    On the other hand the CDC comic is very appealing and I’ve recently seen some video of live illustrations to help explicate complicated issues from economic research on what motivates people to explaining what’s so exciting about Dark Matter.

    July 6, 2012

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