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Toronto artist using comics to educate women about birth control methods

Toronto-based illustrator Rebecca Roher is no stranger to creating art about women’s health. Her comic about the realities of pregnancy, Mom Body, was shared widely online and featured in the Huffington Post, where gynecologist Dr. Aparna Sridhar first saw it two years ago.

At the time, Sridhar was trying to come up with creative ways to educate young women about birth control. Having grown up reading comics such as Tintin and Asterix, she thought a visual medium might easily communicate facts and e-mailed Ms. Roher about a collaboration. “As physicians, as artists we could bring together something that’s not so scary and does contain medically relevant information,” she says.

The result is Birth Control Tales, a colourful online comic based around friends chatting about birth control before a visit to “Dr. A,” who counsels them on contraceptive options. There are currently three instalments: intrauterine devices (IUDs), hormonal implants and a hormonal injection.

Presenting the information through exchanges between friends was particularly important for Roher.

“A lot of people enter into it by talking to other women,” she says. “And I wanted to kind of incorporate the conversations women have about birth control … to make it more personal.”

Working with students at the UCLA Medical Centre, Sridhar found she had to “de-Google” patients who had watched YouTube videos or read online forums about using IUDs.

“They were super terrified. Some of them were really stressed out about it,” she says.

Sridhar was worried “unnecessary fear about side-effects and other components of the birth control methods may drive them away from using it.”

She says demand for stable, longer-term birth control such as IUDs has risen in the past couple of years and analysis from athenaInsight, an online hub that tracks health-care data in the United States, shows it has gone up 19 per cent since Donald Trump’s election amid uncertainty about the administration’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Despite increased awareness, Sridhar says most women who come in for counselling admit to reading misinformation online.

“Friends and peers also seem to have a great influence on birth control usage,” she says.

Dr. Yolanda Kirkham, a gynecologist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto specializing in adolescent gynecology, says educating young women about birth control is just as much of an issue in Canada. She also finds her patients come in with unreliable information and stresses the importance of finding ways to demystify what they read online. A fan of visual aids, she sees the comics as an effective educational tool.

“It’s very important for young people to understand their own bodies and to understand what’s going on,” she says. “But more importantly, that they’re getting [information] from a reliable and accurate source. And this [comic], for example, is excellent.”

Sridhar says the comics have been well-received with her target audience of 18- to 29-year-olds. Each instalment is being tested with five health-care professionals and 30 patients, the results of which will be presented at the annual North American Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology conference in Chicago next month.

Once the series is complete – a fourth comic, due this summer, is about a combination hormonal method – and her research is finished, Sridhar hopes to disseminate the comics widely, providing them as printed materials, on a website and as a mobile app – the IUD comic is available for download in the United States on the App Store. She’s also hoping to translate them into different languages so the tool can be used globally.

Kirkham already sees a place for it in a clinical setting, especially the app. “I think we need to think of new and innovative ways to engage our younger generation now that they’re very much into social media,” she says.

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