BMC graduate student explains the Zika virus through animation


When reports of the Zika virus outbreak first appeared in the media in 2015, the messages were uncertain, confusing and not intended for the people directly impacted by the virus. In response, Meriem Benlamri, a second year Biomedical Communications graduate student, created the 2D animation “What is the Zika virus?” She saw a need to communicate information about the virus effectively through a visual medium and to bring clarity to the epidemic specifically for the populations at greatest risk.

Benlamri, who holds an Honours Bachelor of Science in biology, began by researching the Zika virus, its link to microcephaly, and the mosquito that transmits the virus. Until April 2016, there was no scientific evidence that could confirm the link between the virus and microcephaly.

“Even the World Health Organization could only say that the link was suspected,” Benlamri says.

She found that the information people needed to protect themselves and to prevent the spread of the virus was available from public health organizations. But she also found that the information, for some audiences, was too textual and too medical. Existing visuals only incorporated video recordings of experts who spoke about the virus. Fact sheets often ended with travel advisories for those who live outside Central and South America, the sites of the outbreak. Benlamri knew that she could create an animation to explain the outbreak and engage her target audience long enough to give them the information they needed.

She wrote a script to explain what the virus is, how it is transmitted and where in the world the current outbreak is. She explains the symptoms of the virus in adults and the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly. She describes steps that the impacted population can take to protect themselves from contracting the virus. She wrote the script so that the narration could be visually represented at the same time.

Next, Benlamri built the 2D visual elements in vector-based software and brought the graphics into compositing software to animate them. Then, she recorded and optimized the audio and imported that into the compositing software. Finally, she exported all the content as a video.

Benlamri created the one-and-a-half minute, 2D animation as part of an exercise in storytelling for the biomedical communications graduate course “Advanced Media Design.”

“Meriem has created an animation in which all the information is significant. She presents it clearly and simply and her audience requires no specialized knowledge to understand it,” says Michael Corrin, Biomedical Communications faculty and the course’s instructor. “She makes the information memorable through visuals that reinforce what is being spoken and she engages the audience through her use of colour and rapidly moving imagery.”

On April 13, 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a media statement that confirmed Zika virus as a cause of microcephaly. Benlamri is revising her piece to reflect this confirmed link.

Although her animation is currently available only in English, to reach her target audiences, Benlamri is collaborating with a translator on a Spanish version of the script. She hopes to find another translator to create a Portuguese version and she has written to the Pan American Health Organization to discuss the distribution of her animation. Benlamri wants to get her animation to people in Central and South America and specifically to pregnant women because they and their babies are at the highest risk, she says.

“I was impressed by the passion Meriem brought to the project. Her investment in the topic, its importance and timeliness had a huge impact on what she produced,” says Corrin. “Her project could inform people both inside and outside the areas effected by the Zika virus outbreak.”

Next, Benlamri begins work on her master’s research project to develop web-based interactive modules that incorporate 2D animations and 3D models to educate psychiatry residents about the latest advances in neuroscientific research.

by Maeve Doyle