Born in Milan, Anna Odone has a unique accolade: she is the youngest female tenured professor in Italy. At the age of 35, she recently took up the Chair of Hygiene at the University of Pavia. "I was with the Vita-Salute University of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan for three years, where I was also Head of the Clinical Epidemiology Unit", she explains, stressing that "being the youngest lecturer in the country was not something that particularly motivated me. But let me remind you that in medicine women are 25% less likely than men to be promoted in their academic careers. This disparity has unfortunately not changed in the last 35 years, a rather long time. It is a fact that allows the Anna Odone to proudly proclaim, "my success is the result of a lot of commitment and sacrifice. I will strive to ensure in my work over the years to come that it is not an accolade for its own sake.” What makes this lecturer different, however, it is not so much her youth as the fact that she is the inventor of the animated cartoon “Leo e Giulia: Noi come voi!” [Leo and Julia: like me, like you!] to explain the pandemic to children.
How did the idea of an animated cartoon come about?
During the weeks of lockdown. It seemed obvious to me that not enough had been done to "explain" to children why their world, their daily life, that is to say, school, had suddenly been turned upside down.
A cartoon, however, does not seem like the obvious choice of academic approach…
It was initially more of an approach as a mother. I'm married and have two primary school-age children. In the days of lockdown, I found myself, like so many others, trying to explain to my children why we were forced to stay indoors. So I came up with the idea.
How did you put it into practice?
I began with the need to explain the emergency in which we find ourselves to a child, starting with the key question that little ones always ask: "Why are schools closed?" A problem I faced was working on texts for my son's class. At that point, I thought it would be nice if that work had been animated and made available to everyone.
A project you shared with your university at the time…
Yes, I involved the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, which sponsored it, and, in addition to the University, the San Raffaele Hospital Scientific Institute for Research, Hospitalisation and Healthcare was involved, as were the European Public Health Alliance (EUPHA), the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS), the Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region (ASPHER), the Italian Society of Paediatrics (SIP), and the Society of Hygiene, Preventive Medicine and Public Health (SITI). In concrete terms, the creation and production was directed by the animation studio Maga Animation, which helped us for free. The result was this cartoon and the choice was taken to make it available on the University's Youtube channel, as well as on the UniSR website and on the UniSR pages on Facebook and Instagram. Having been conceived as a Public Engagement activity, we felt it should be disseminated in the most accessible way possible.
The title is "Leo and Giulia: Noi come voi!” [Leo and Julia: like me, like you!]. What does it consist of?
It is the story of two sweet little siblings, Leo and Julia, who are forced to stay at home because of the pandemic. Through their stories and in the relationship between them and with their mother they help children to understand what the Coronavirus is, how it is transmitted, what "epidemics" and "pandemics” are, and even how little ones can help to prevent infection. The texts are designed for the 5 to 11 age range. It is a genuine scientific and health education information project but designed for little ones.
Is this where being a mother gives way to the lecturer?
In a way, yes. I am convinced that it is possible to convey any health education message using the appropriate languages and tools, from kindergarten to primary school. I believe it is important to transmit scientific content to children on prevention and public health, helping them to learn, in a positive and informed way, behaviours that will help them as they grow and serve them in their future adult life. It is a way of building up cultural reflexes that stay with you throughout your life.
The whole question of health education is now taking on huge importance …
With Covid19, we have discovered just how fundamental and vital personal hygiene is. Just take one of the tools that was identified from the outset as being the most effective way of protecting against contagion: washing your hands. Creating citizens who are aware is, I believe, is an integral part of what might be called a culture of prevention. And it doesn't have to be boring or laborious.
So are you planning a new cartoon series?
Yes, absolutely. What we do in our university lectures is to explain what factors outside the health system affect our health. We talk about nutrition, social class, habits, sports. Hygiene and public health is a very broad discipline. It would be really nice to try to imagine a series of episodes where Leo and Julia address all these aspects, I see it as a fantastic opportunity. I grew up with "Siamo fatti così” [This is what we are], a cartoon that dealt with anatomy and how the human body functions. It would be nice to do the same thing for our discipline.