Wellcome Workshop warm up – a visit to a rural science centre

About 25 delegates who arrived early in Richards Bay were immersed in dialogue about public science engagement in the developing world during a visit to the UniZul Science Centre in Richards Bay. The visit was a pre-cursor to the Wellcome Trust’s workshop “Science and Community: Engage to Empower” taking place here this week.

It is fitting that this workshop takes place as the world commemorates World AIDS Day, one of the catalysts encouraging scientists to dig deeper into public engagement in their efforts to contain this scourge.

The Wellcome group was privileged to see the brand new HIV/AIDS maze, a work-in-progress which aims to dispel the myths around the disease in an effort to empower youngsters who visit the centre. Along the route, the maze displays specific “yes” or “no” questions based on statistically relevant life choices to help the intrepid voyager out of the puzzle.

“We want to use the maze and our edutainment play to promote clarity on the infection and the role of anti-retrovirals (ARVs),” said Science Centre Director, Derek Fish. “We are targeting science students in early high school – aged about 13 – 15 – and hope to use them as science ambassadors to disseminate the facts about AIDS to their peers, parents and communities.”

He explained that statistics from the nearby Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, which is co-hosting the workshop, show that HIV prevalence is about 4% in girls and 1% in boys in this age group.

“This figure rises dramatically by the age of 19, which is why we want to catch them in time.We are morally obliged to include HIV/AIDS education at the Centre which was established to encourage a love and understanding about science in our youth. We then added a colour-coded career centre next to the Science Centre, so they can see what kind of careers are available as budding scientists. But now with KwaZulu-Natal being the epicenter of the pandemic in South Africa, we have to do what we can to empower these youngsters about HIV/AIDS, because otherwise, our efforts will be in vain,” said Fish.

The delegates were also treated to a new edutainment play on how the virus attacks the immune system and how ARVs can help to block further replication of the virus once a person is infected. The group offered constructive points on where the play could be enhanced to help dispel myths or uncertainties, and the content will be further informed by facts emerging from the Africa Centre on knowledge and perceptions of the target age group about HIV and AIDS. A feedback mechanism is also planned to see how the play can change current perceptions and existing knowledge.

Posted by Greer van Zyl, Healthwrite

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