Vitamins make you fat. Vitamins are for old people. Vitamins only help if you are rundown or sick.
These are just a few of the popular myths that USC faculty and staff members face in their crusade to spread the word within Latino communities about the importance of folic acid, a vitamin essential for good nutrition. To battle these perceptions, the group has developed a bilingual fotonovela, or graphic novel, about folic acid, and it is training east Los Angeles women—dubbed promotoras—to use the publication in health promotion in their neighborhoods.
The fotonovela—a photographic comic book charged with amusing, soap-opera moments—also will reach these neighborhood streets through familiar media, distributed inside 5,000 copies of the Spanish-language Los Angeles newspaper La Opinión. They are also available at local pharmacies, and the promotoras will distribute them at health fairs.
Starting in 2000 with $20,000 from the March of Dimes, Melvin Baron, Pharm.D., assistant dean for programmatic advancement in the USC School of Pharmacy and one of the effort’s pioneers, and Robin D. Clark, M.D., then director of the cancer genetics unit at USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, created a pilot program to take the folic acid message into five local high schools.
Folic acid is a vitamin important to overall wellness, Baron explains. Adults should get 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. For one, it is critical to the healthy development of a baby. Between 70 and 80 percent of birth defects may be prevented if women get enough folic acid in their diet before they even become pregnant, Baron says. Latinos in the United States have about twice as many birth defects, proportionately, as other ethnic groups.
Folic acid also may be important in maintaining cardiovascular health in both men and women. Mild deficiencies can lead to elevated homocysteine levels in the blood—a condition associated with atherosclerosis and blood clots. Studies also have linked folic acid deficiency not only to defects in DNA synthesis (which is tied to birth defects) but also to defects in DNA repair, which might contribute to cancer.
Through their first grant, Baron and Clark developed a statewide curriculum on folic acid for middle and high schools and presented it to the California Department of Education. With subsequent grants provided by the USC Neighborhood Outreach program, they ran focus groups of neighborhood teenagers to determine popular perceptions about vitamins and diet.
At the same time, they built a network of educators and colleagues who were intrigued with the campaign. They wondered how to creatively reach the community, and since short paperback graphic novels are a popular story-telling medium in many Latin-American countries, the fotonovela idea was born.
USC staff members such as Monica Alvarado, genetic counselor at USC/Norris, and teachers from Murchison Street Elementary School volunteered to portray characters. Greg Molina, a filmmaker who works with the USC Institute for Prevention Research, helped write the script and was instrumental in laying out the publication.
Baron and colleagues also got help from two Boyle Heights pharmacies. Botica del Sol and Ramirez Pharmacy both contributed $5,000, and the pharmacies also offered discounted multivitamins as part of the promotion.
USC School of Pharmacy graduate Ray Poon owns Botica del Sol, and the Ramirez Pharmacy also has longtime USC connections, Baron notes: Two Ramirez generations graduated from the USC School of Pharmacy, and another Ramirez is currently at the school.