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Sex put Firmly in the picture

A booklet on sexually transmitted infections, written by pupils at Skerries, has so impressed the NHS that it is to be used in all Shetland schools. Henry Hepburn reports

JOE AND RACHAEL are turning the air blue. Rachael has found out that she has chlamydia and knows Joe is to blame. She questions his parentage and disinclination to use contraception. Joe's oath-strewn, self-pitying reaction suggests he has not taken the news well.

Joe and Rachael also have four fingers on each hand, giant heads and feet like ironing boards. They are the stars of a cartoon strip devised by pupils in one of Scotland's most remote schools. The booklet has become a hugely popular tool for getting Shet- land youngsters to understand the dangers of sexually trans- mitted infections.

The strip emerged from work done by a community nurse with secondary pupils at Skerries School, which has a roll of 75 and is reached by an hour-and-a-half boat trip from mainland Shetland. The pupils were learning about STIs and, more specifically, chlamydia, and decided to show this knowledge in the style of a comic. The results so impressed NHS Shetland, that it decided to turn their work into a 12-page booklet for use in schools.

The booklet, Attention Teenagers: Do You Want to Know?, has proved so effective that, four years since its production, it has been used in all of Shetland's secondary schools, and extra copies continue to be ordered by teachers.

There are two clear reasons for its success. First, its brazen depictions of teenage courtship including a sexual encounter in a boat and liberal use of swear words is far removed from the dry and sometimes coy information on sexual health that has often been used in schools.

Secondly, the characters speak in the Shetland dialect and appear in scenarios that would be familiar to teenagers on the islands. "Is du no going tae get riggit fur gaain oot", asks one character. ("Aren't you getting dressed for going out?")

It was this authenticity that persuaded NHS Shetland to turn the cartoon strip into a resource for schools. Health professionals and local graphics company artmachine helped out, but the final product was very close to the original work produced by third- and fourth-year pupils Naomi and Leanne Anderson, Steven Hughson and Allan Molloy.

"It was the children who came up with the idea and developed everything about it," says Elizabeth Robinson, health promotion manager for NHS Shetland.

"We don't have anything like it that's in the local language. We've tended to source resources from Scotland rather than the rest of the UK where relevant, but where things are done in a local dialect at all, it's done in Glaswegian rather than the Shetland dialect."

Ms Robinson explained that the booklet captured Shetland teen-agers' attention because it was full of things they would recognise. "It's relevant to people here, such as the comment about having a boat in the marina that's the sort of place young people sneak off to," she says. "It's very rare to get anything relating to young people that would have that type of detail."

It was not originally planned to reproduce the work by the Skerries pupils all of whom have since left the school but its high quality convinced officials that it might have a wider use.

They were impressed by the directness of its message about the dangers of unprotected sex. Ms Robinson said that other materials about sexual health were often aimed at adults, and that even those designed for younger people tended to be offputting because they were packed with complex information.

"We knew a lot of the schools were doing work on STIs we didn't realise the depth of work in Skerries," she says. "The main feedback we get on the booklets is that people keep coming back for more the schools appreciate having local information that's relevant.

"It's completely different there are other things that are fine, but very universal. People in Shetland like Shetland-focused stuff."

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