Experts say their educational cartoon that helps primary school children understand the importance of hand hygiene and physical distancing could inspire greater confidence in Australian schools that have reopened after COVID lockdowns.
Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU), QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and The University of Queensland are designing a cartoon and teaching materials based on their successful international "Magic Glasses" health campaign.
The peer-reviewed program has been successful in increasing knowledge and changing behaviour to reduce intestinal worm infections in children in China and The Philippines.
The 15-minute educational cartoon and teaching materials about the transmission and prevention of intestinal worms have reduced infections by half.
The researchers say similar health messages and campaigns could be applied to help protect children from COVID-19.
"Children have been a forgotten group in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic," Professor Darren Gray, from the ANU Research School of Population Health, said.
"While COVID does not impact children as severely as adults, they can still get sick and can still transmit the virus.
"There is limited health messaging around COVID specifically for children. Yet, this messaging is critical to reinforce preventive measures like hand washing, physical distancing and mask wearing.
"Having a Magic Glasses program for COVID would give greater confidence for parents and teachers as schools reopen after lockdowns."
In the cartoon, a doctor gives children "magic glasses" that allow them to see the COVID-19 virus on surfaces, their hands, in their bodies and in the air.
"Children learn good hygiene and distancing practices, then revisit places they found the virus," Professor Gray said.
"Armed with this new knowledge, they can change their behaviour to avoid getting sick."
The researchers' latest Magic Glasses project in The Philippines involved 40 schools across Laguna Province, where intestinal worms affect 33 per cent of children. Intestinal worms can cause nausea, weight loss, bloating, fatigue and abdominal pain among other symptoms.
The study compared 20 schools using standard health education with 20 schools using the Magic Glasses health message. The results are published in The Lancet Regional Health.
Children who took part in the Magic Glasses campaign in The Philippines were more likely to participate in the school-based drug administered deworming program.
"Our study shows that the Magic Glasses health education and messaging improves knowledge, attitudes and practices among children," Mary Lorraine Mationg, ANU PhD student and project lead in the Philippines, said.
Professor Gray said: "Cartoons are universal, and this one can be readily adapted to other health messages and cultures.
"Previous Magic Glasses campaigns showed a 50 per cent reduction in intestinal worm infection in communities where it was rolled out.
"This cartoon helps children understand how they can stop the spread. We know the Magic Glasses work to help children change their behaviour.
"It gives us a practical tool as we live with COVID-19 and return to school."
The ANU, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the University of Queensland researchers, in collaboration with the Melbourne-based Shape Group, are seeking funding to support the development of the COVID-19 Magic Glasses cartoon.