By Tracie McMillan
“The Plate,” National Geographic • April 7, 2016
A red-suited superhero alights on top of his foe, bringing his fist down with a blow that smashes his enemy to smithereens. The foe’s name, though, isn’t the Joker or Lex. It’s diabetes.
It’s all part of the World Health Organization’s latest public awareness campaign, launched Thursday. “More and more younger people…are developing the Type II form of diabetes,” says Paul Garwood, a communications specialist at the WHO, which has in recent years begun to focus on eradicating non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as hypertension, heart disease and obesity, alongside traditional global health concerns like malaria. The campaign marks the first time the WHO has turned to cartoons—or superheroes—to get its point across.
“It was a gamble,” says Garwood, but “we thought [children] would be ideal for the campaign.” And that’s not only because kids suffer from diabetes, but because they can push their parents to make healthier choices.(Cartoons probably help with adults, too, since the planet is in a bit of a superhero craze right now. Hollywood studios are churning out a dozen or so superhero movies a year lately that are based on comic books, and making millions in themed merchandise.)
Diabetes is increasingly on the rise in lower-income countries. From 1980 to 2014, the share of adults with diabetes nearly doubled, from 4.7 percent of the world’s population to 8.7 percent, according to a new report from the WHO. The steepest increases in the disease came in Asia, Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, where rates nearly doubled. What’s more, obesity, which is strongly correlated with diabetes, has become a global problem. In 2014, more than one in three adults in the world were overweight.
Part of that, says Garwood, is because manufactured foods high in sugar, fat and salt have become increasingly common around the world—and diets have worsened as a result. That’s particularly true, he says, for kids. “It is young people that are increasingly affected by the exposure to [unhealthy foods high in fat and sugar],” he says.
And that is what led the WHO to develop the current kid-friendly, five-poster campaign. Apart from the aforementioned “smashing” poster, two feature the red-clad superhero (as of yet unnamed, said Garwood) modeling healthy eating and an active lifestyle alongside superhero-costumed children. The remaining two posters focus explicitly on diabetes diagnosis and management, with the superhero getting a finger-prick and leaving a pharmacy with medication in hand.
While cartoons depicting blood tests might seem overwrought to Western industrialized audiences, it points to one of the quieter problems of diabetes. While identifying and treating the disease has become normal in the U.S., it remains difficult in poorer countries, which often lack the modern medical care and medication that is crucial in managing the disease. Today, the medicines and technologies used to treat diabetes including insulin, are generally available in one out of three of the world’s poorest countries, says Etienne Krug, Director of WHO’s Department for the Management of NCDs, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention, in a press release.
But what kind of superhero doesn’t have a name? You can suggest one in the comments, but please, don’t pick Boaty McBoatFace. It’s already taken.