Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease
Many people came uninformed but left very informed.
Guinea worm disease (GWD), which once plagued millions across Africa and Asia, is on the verge of eradication. And without any known vaccine to prevent it, the Guinea worm eradication story is a universal one. A story of people and a collective human effort of triumph over disease. And it’s one the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been an integral part of.
Keeping up with their longstanding national commitment to public health causes, the UAE has – for two decades – been a prominent donor to the Guinea Worm Eradication Program (GWEP), spearheaded by the Atlanta-based Carter Center.
Set to become the second human disease ever to be eliminated after smallpox, the Crown Prince Court Abu Dhabi (CPC AUH), in partnership with The Carter Center, wanted to raise awareness around GWD and other neglected tropical diseases, as well as raise the UAE’s profile as a major contributor to public health.
Jack Morton’s task was to bring together two stories. The first, the UAE’s historic, ongoing contribution to global public health. The second, the near-eradication of GWD, which the UAE has played a significant role in.
Our challenge was clear: communicate these narratives to an audience whose awareness of either was slim, to none – and make them care.
In the mid-1980s, 3.5 million people across 21 countries were infected with GWD. And in 2017, only 30 human cases were reported.1
But what’s most remarkable of the near-eradication of the disease, which once devastated communities from the Gambia to Pakistan, is that it’s been achieved in the absence of any known vaccine or medicine to prevent or treat it.
Channeling the power of collective empathy
The process of disease eradication – while scientific and technical – is ultimately driven by the power of collective empathy. At every level, from government and non-government organizations, to village volunteers, GWD has been systematically eliminated by people and communities who have come together for one reason: a shared will to alleviate human suffering.
In huge numbers, people turned out for other people – often finding ingenious, creative and innovative ways to help educate and protect members of their own communities and countries from the disease.
We identified that this story, which is grounded in a recognition of our common humanity, can resonate anywhere. It bears relevance irrespective of background and doesn’t demand an academic or scientific understanding of development theory or disease eradication.
It’s also a hopeful story: one that could inspire optimism and redefine an imbalanced narrative by challenging a misconception that the developing world exists in a perpetual state of crisis.
We challenged traditional associations of aid: moving away from poverty and toward the power of collective empathy, in a space that invited the audience into the journey of disease eradication in both design and content. Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease was first created by the American Museum of Natural History in 2015, in partnership with The Carter Center. It was an image-led exhibition, coupled with narration about the GWEP.
Aiming to do something more emotive with inherited content, we built the exhibition within a geodesic dome, reflecting the “0” at the heart of the brand. The structure allowed us to layer the GWD narrative through five concentric zones, with visitors moving toward a central area dedicated to celebrating the partnership between the UAE and The Carter Center.
- Used environmental cues from a sub-Saharan African village that might typically be affected by GWD, with raw materials, textures, sounds and props.
- Created opportunities to meet individuals involved, symbolizing the human side of eradication efforts.
- Identified moving, insightful soundbites from previously filmed interviews and looped them in overhead audio pods so visitors could hear experiences from the frontline of eradication.
- Used digital carousels to tell personal stories of affected victims and GWEP champions, derived from archived case records.
- Showcased authentic tools and educational materials that have aided in the fight for eradication such as pipe and water filters, flipbooks, clothing and more.
- Included a video message from Jimmy Carter, of The Carter Center, reflecting on the shared vision that has defined the GWEP.
- Celebrated the key partners and donors of the program at the heart of the exhibition.
- Contextualized scale through animated maps, counters and moving images to depict the vast reduction of GWD cases.
- Left visitors with a song sung by children in a Sudanese case containment center, celebrating the near-eradication of GWD, which played at the exit.
Showcasing the reality of GWD
We created a digital touch experience that gave visitors a chance to interact with copepods – the tiny crustaceans that carry Guinea worm larvae. Modeled in 3D and built in a gaming engine, copepods responded to visitors’ touch and introduced the Guinea worm lifecycle.
We also displayed Guinea worms extracted from victims’ bodies with magnifying glasses and made the painstaking process of worm extraction memorable via an interactive challenge, using delicate string wound around a wooden spool to attempt extraction of the “worm” without it breaking.
An interactive weight installation invited visitors to literally feel the burden of water for many developing areas.
Pipe filters worn around the neck – a critical tool of eradication – became take-home items, inviting visitors to decorate theirs with beads, mirroring the act undertaken by some South Sudanese villages to personalize their filters.
And we produced activity books for children, containing thought starters that encouraged them to consider the value of partnership, giving, and the privilege of safe drinking water.
We engaged the public, raised awareness and created advocates. An overall success!
Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease received coverage in 93 features across 53 publications across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – in print and online – acknowledging the UAE’s role as a major champion of public health globally.
The exhibition generated 54% more visitors than the intended goal – each spending an average of 40 minutes per visits. Many people came uninformed but left very informed. Nearly all found their experience enjoyable; one they would recommend it to a family member or friend. And they left inspired to continue learning more about GWD.
1 The Carter Center. (2018, August 29). Guinea Worm Case Totals. Retrieved September 25, 2018 from https://www.cartercenter.org/health/guinea_worm/case-totals.html