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Everybody needs good neighbours

Arli Miller, MS Australia

Open Door - May 2008 pages 10-11

Shown in more than 65 countries around the world, Neighbours has a daily international audience of 120 million viewers.

In episodes broadcast in the UK from March 2008, one of the characters was diagnosed with MS.

Arli Miller, the Media & Communications Manager at MS Australia talks about the organisation's experiences pitching and securing a storyline and collaborating with the Neighbours writers.

Jackie Woodburne who plays Susan Kinski in Neighbours Jackie Woodburne who plays Susan Kinski

For those who don't glue themselves to the television set, the serial Neighbours follows the lives and relationships of the residents of Ramsay Street, a suburban street in Melbourne.

Recently, one of the longest standing characters, Susan Kinski, was diagnosed with MS. Over the next few months we will see her react to the diagnosis, cope with her MS and the way in which it affects those around her.

MS Australia has the constant challenge of raising public awareness of the disease without a huge budget or unlimited resources. In 2005, we decided to pitch a storyline to a serial that was widely watched by the Australian public to help us achieve this.

Neighbours was the perfect fit. The show would reach a mass audience with whom we wanted to communicate - women aged 20 - 50. The show also revolves around the lives of family and friends within their street, perfectly placed for demonstrating the widespread impact MS can have on a community and not just those diagnosed.

We contacted a producer from the show and discussed a possible storyline. Given the demographics of MS, we suggested a storyline for a younger cast member. At the time there was one in particular - she was in her twenties, had a promising career, was engaged and possibly had a family in front of her - the profile of a person living with MS that we wanted to present to the Australian public.

In 2006, we received a call from a writer at Neighbours advising us that they would like to write an MS story into their scripts and which character they had chosen. Initially we were slightly disappointed to learn that they had chosen Susan Kinski as, at 52, she was older than the typical person diagnosed with the condition. However, we were pleased that a long standing, permanent character and not an extra would be diagnosed and live with MS for the rest of her time on the show. For the first time in Australia, television was going to present a lifelong MS journey.

MS Australia was asked to attend a meeting with the Neighbours writers and producers to help them to develop a realistic and true story. Therefore, from the beginning we felt confident that the show was committed to portraying MS factually.

During the meeting, our Medical Director provided an overview of MS starting from a medical definition, diagnosis, possible misdiagnoses, symptoms and treatments.

We were also able to introduce them to a person living with MS who shared her experiences of diagnosis, the impact it has had on her and those around her, and the progression of her disease. When the Neighbours storyline first ran in Australia, she said it was like looking back on herself twenty years ago and she was seeing her story on screen.

The interest and commitment to get the facts correct was evident in the questions that were being fired at us. There was also an obvious engagement with the personal experiences of MS. Following the meeting and during several script developments, the writers have remained in contact to clarify the storylines were correct.

Since the storyline was broadcast in Australia, public feedback has been overwhelming. For the first time people are beginning to resonate with the MS message by having a character with whom they can identify.

Most of the feedback has been positive although there was some concern in the early episodes when Susan was diagnosed that it was over dramatised, potentially providing an unrealistic portrayal of diagnosis. Susan experienced problems with her vision, slurred speech, extreme fatigue, numbness and partial paralysis at the same time and it was argued by some that this would not be a realistic scenario in most cases.

Whilst this may be true we need to remember that TV will always dramatise their issues to make the storyline compelling for viewers as well as to maintain their ratings.

When we explain that the Neighbours production team had met us and 'interviewed' a person with MS and our Medical Director, people are encouraged that a popular show has taken the time to research the subject.

Without doubt the show has helped the public understand some of the complexities of MS and the story comes up in many conversations with our supporters. We are confident that this, along with our other activities, will help us build awareness of MS amongst the general population in Australia.

What did people in the UK think?

"It was like watching me when I was diagnosed. I just hope they carry on with the storyline and show that people do recover to some extent, that we do suffer on a daily basis, and that sometimes it doesn't go away at all!"

"I recorded it for my family to watch so that they could have some insight into how it feels to be diagnosed with MS, how scary it is when you don't know anything about it and even when you do!!"

"She was told she had MS after the MRI - no weeks for results, no probable diagnosis, no lumbar puncture."

"I doubt very much that Neighbours will be able to show the multiple ways in which having such a disease affects peoples lives."

"I really feel that they are overdoing the drama, and it is enough to frighten to death anyone who has just been diagnosed. All they seem to have expressed is acute sorrow."

"Good on Neighbours I say. Let them show the worst case scenario. With people talking about MS it raises awareness and in some small way pressures authorities to re-think the way we are treated."

With thanks to the members of the MS People UK discussion list and the MS People forum