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The evil duo Hemo and Nemo pounce on Montasser, an unsuspecting child, as they have on so many other children – often with fatal results.

Hemo and Nemo are two bacteria drawn as squiggly characters in a comic book, and they aim to infect Montasser with pneumonia, the biggest killer of under-fives in Egypt. But the young boy follows his doctor’s advice by taking medication, eating healthy food and learning to wash his hands and open windows to let in fresh air – all measures that help him recover and avoid re-infection.

Montasser Yantasser, which translates as Victor is Victorious, is the title of the comic colouring book used by Protect Your Child, a health awareness initiative launched by a group of young volunteers to teach parents and children how to avoid deadly disease.

Sitting in his spartan office in a suburb of Cairo, Mohamed Zaazoue, the 25-year-old doctor who is the prime mover behind the initiative, says he wanted to come up with an “innovative and entertaining way” to spread the health awareness message.

“In Egypt there is the idea that health education is only for doctors,” he says. “So if you are ill you go to a doctor, he gives you a prescription and that’s it. Because people don’t learn about health there is a very high mortality and morbidity from preventable diseases. Every year, pneumonia kills 42,000 children in Egypt.”

Protect Your Child started in September 2011 but has already reached 10,000 families, says Zaazoue, with 14,000 children vaccinated against pneumonia using vaccines donated by Pfizer, the drug company. The campaign, carried out under the umbrella of the Egyptian Medical Students’ Association, focuses on poor areas in Cairo and the countryside. Its volunteers take the message using the colouring books, puppet shows and games to schools, nurseries and hospitals.

“We decided to start with children because they are a good entry point to approach families,” says Zaazoue. His plans for the future include campaigns to educate the public about diseases that affect adults.

Hospital waiting rooms are ideal places to spread the word, he says, because parents with sick children often have to wait several hours to see a doctor. The volunteers usually say they are organising a competition, then they offer health awareness information before presenting parents with an easy quiz on what they have just heard.

“Everyone is a winner,” said Zaazoue. “We even give the information in a leaflet so that they can answer the questions and win the colouring book and other health information leaflets.”

With a core group of 30-40 people and some 400 volunteers around the country, Protect Your Child is in demand by nurseries and non-government groups working in poor areas.

Ahmed Farouk, vice-chairman of Misr al Irada, an education non-governmental organisation that works in the Cairo slum of Arab al-Tawaylah, says two visits by Protect Your Child volunteers who vaccinated 550 children had a positive effect on the local population.

“They gave presents, vaccinated children and gave out information,” he says. “People now drop by our premises to ask when they are coming again. This is an area where people live below the poverty line. They don’t take their children to doctors. When they are sick they go to the chemist for a painkiller.”

In the upper Egyptian province of Assiut, Mahmoud Saad, a medical student, led a group of Protect your Child volunteers at a day of awareness at a local school.

“The girls in our group acted out a sketch for the children, and we read them the story in the comic book and coloured it with them,” he says. “We also showed videos and took 500 doses of the vaccine to the children’s hospital. As a result of the activities in the school, parents started coming to the hospital to ask for the vaccine.”

Despite its short existence, the initiative has already secured backing from the charity Save the Children and a grant from the Sandra Rotman Centre, a health research foundation at the University of Toronto in Canada.

One aim, says Rana Soliman, who co-ordinates the volunteers helping with the initiative, is to persuade the Egyptian health ministry to include the expensive pneumonia vaccine in its free immunisation programme.

“My biggest challenge is to get the ministry to include it within five years,” she says. “I also need more people to help so we can reach more places.”

According to Zaazoue, the next project is a campaign about iron deficiency anaemia. A new colouring book about Montasser vanquishing anaemia and growing strong enough to score goals in football is in the works. “After that it will be gastroenteritis,” says Zaazoue.

The project has also allowed its leaders to grow. Soliman says: “I have learnt to work with all sorts of people. They accept what we tell them and ask about so many things, not just about disease. It opens up new ideas for what we can do next.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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