Catching them young
January 17, 2004
"HIV/AIDS has become a disease of young people, with young adults aged 15-24 accounting for half of the some five million new cases of HIV infection worldwide each year. Yet young people often lack the information, skills and services they need to protect themselves from HIV infection. Providing these is crucial to turning back the epidemic."
This quote, taken from the United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA) report titled 'The State of the World Population 2003', reinforces what activists have been saying for years: that it was important for HIV prevention messages and services to target young people, given what global statistics have been revealing.
It is welcome news then, that the Guyana Teachers Union, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health are collaborating on an HIV prevention programme that will target secondary school students. Not that this is a new concept, head teachers of individual schools have in the past few years invited non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide educational talks on HIV and AIDS to groups of students. Many NGOs have also approached schools and the ministry and were granted permission to hold sessions in various schools. And many students, too, have tackled aspects of HIV - particularly its spread and impact - in school-based assignments which they are required to complete at fourth form level.
However, one would imagine that if the GTU and health and education ministries take on HIV prevention education in schools then the wider school population would be reached. It is to be hoped that such a programme would be tackled with urgency and not allowed the long gestation period that the Health and Family Life Education programme has had.
Since a fair number of teachers and students would have already been exposed to HIV prevention education and are involved in peer education at school and through youth organisations, there would be no need for the GTU and the ministries to reinvent the wheel. What would be needed is for time to be officially set aside to facilitate the programme. A review of what is already known should also be done and this could be used to correct what, if any, misinformation is circulating. There would also be need for funding to provide whatever teaching aids are necessary.
The opportunity should also be taken to use such a programme to debunk the myths surrounding sex, sexuality and sexual health that prevail among young people, despite what appears to be a deluge of correct information. In implementing the programme, cognisance must also be taken of the fact that HIV is highly associated with poverty.
The programme should also be gender-sensitive, since it has been found that girls are more vulnerable to HIV than boys. According to statistics provided by UNFPA at the end of December 2001, out of 11,800,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 living with HIV and AIDS in the world, 62% or 7,316,000 were young women. The report quotes a study done in 1997 and reproduced in the New England Journal of Medicine, which says that biologically, the risk of infection during unprotected sex is two to four times higher for women than men. This makes young women even more susceptible, since their reproductive tracts are still maturing and the tissue could easily be torn during sexual activity. It is also not unusual for young girls to have sexual relationships with older men, increasing the likelihood that their partners are already infected. And if sex is being exchanged for money or gifts, as is sometimes known to be the case particularly when girls are poor, then they would have little or no power to negotiate condom use.
Given all of the above, it is obvious that a nationwide school intervention programme, that starts in the secondary schools, but could be extended to the primary, is not only necessary, but imperative. The focus of the AIDS fight at present is stamping out discrimination and teaching tolerance for people living with the disease. However, prevention education is still important and current trends indicate that reaching the very young better safeguards their future.