AIDS and Schools: Educating those who are High-Risk

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The general population of America today is having great difficulty facing a very frightening situation. Unfortunately, rather than seek information which might lessen anxiety about the subject, many people just choose to ignore the problem. Unwillingness to deal with a problem, however, only makes matters worse, and in this case, avoidance often leads to unrestrained disgust and hatred for those members of our society who are directly affected by the problem--our unfortunate citizens who are suffering with AIDS. Other members of our society, on the other hand, want to learn about AIDS, first to overcome their fears and then to replace the general lack of knowledge with understanding. These people realize that a whole generation of Americans is dying from the disease, and they know that those infected with AIDS must be treated as people who are victims of the disease, not as the disease itself. Nevertheless, a major problem exists in educating people about AIDS because, as Donna and Michael Lenaghan report, "controversy and politics surround the content, description, methodology, and strategy for any education initiatives" (17). Still, information exists in abundance, and much has been learned about AIDS since it was first widely reported in 1981. We now know what causes the disease. And, perhaps more importantly, we know how to prevent its spread (Colman 8). AIDS is not easily contracted. As communicable diseases go, AIDS is relatively difficult to catch as it does not easily find its way into the human body. In fact, it is far less contagious than the common cold, measles, or even gonorrhea. When armed with reliable information, a person can almost always avoid the infection. With such knowledge about AIDS available, it is not only important and necessary to share it, but it is also preventative. There is hope that with education will come caution, not the caution of fear, but the caution that knowledge brings. Many have come to realize that "in the absence of a cure or vaccine for AIDS, the most enduring and economical intervention is education" (Lenaghan and Lenaghan 17). It seems obvious, therefore, that effective implementation of AIDS educational programs will stop the spread of the disease among our high-risk groups: children, teenagers, and young women of child-bearing age.

Education for young children is important for two reasons. Knowledge will alleviate their fears in dealing with other children who have AIDS, and it will also prepare them for the behavioral modifications they will be taught as teens.

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C. Everett Koop, who was the U.S. Surgeon General at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, believed "that sex education should begin as early as the third grade so that youngsters can grow up knowing the behaviors to avoid to protect themselves form the AIDS virus" (qtd. in Cohn). However, Leann Arbuckle, Vice-President of "Other Options," which is an AIDS education and testing organization, believes that the education of children needs to start as early as five years old. In other words, she would like to see AIDS education started when children first enter school. This program, of course, would need to be much more basic than the sex education that Koop would like to have implemented in the third grade. It would need to encompass the simpler concepts of hygiene as well as the fact that children can't "catch" AIDS through casual contact with their classmates. Many strides have been made in this form of AIDS education for young children. Stickers, posters, and even coloring books such as Hey, Do You Know What You Can't Get AIDS From? are available as teaching aids. These educational materials show children that AIDS is not communicable through nonsexual physical contact such as touching a child's hand or from hugging. Teaching about AIDS early and often through these and other educational manipulatives will lead the way for the more extensive teaching and behavior modifications that children will need to receive when they become teens.

Even though education is important for young children, "teenagers are an even more logical and compelling AIDS-prevention-education target (Lenaghan and Lenaghan 18). The average age of most current AIDS patients is between twenty and twenty-nine. When one considers that the incubation time of the disease is six to twelve years, it becomes evident that these victims are most likely exposed in their teen years. Thus, the education of teens regarding how they can get AIDS and the behaviors they need to follow in order to prevent acquiring AIDS needs to be increased.

Many teens are still remarkably naive about AIDS and its transmission. For example, some high school students still believe AIDS can be acquired from swimming pools, tears, and insect bites. Candis L. Ramelli reports that "the only thing every one of them [students] know when they arrive" in her sex education class at T.C. Williams High School "is that it's fatal" (qtd. in Cohn). Statements like this prove that some teens still lack even the most basic knowledge about the disease. In addition, many students say that AIDS has not frightened the high school population to the same extent drunk driving has, and many simply dismiss it as a homosexual disease. According to seventeen-year-old Maeve Butler, "It [AIDS] seems so remote they don't think they're going to get it" (qtd. in Cohn).

Knowing how to avoid an AIDS infection is especially important for teens because "statistics suggest that many teenagers are likely to become involved in 'high risk' behavior" (Colman 9). Teens are a "high risk" group because they often experiment with sex and drugs. They are "vulnerable because of their impulsive behavior and/or lack of understanding about the long-term consequences of behavior" (Lenaghan and Lenaghan 17). Because of this, "the question facing educators is no longer whether to teach teens abut HIV and AIDS, but how" (Eaton 66). A primary message to teens is to postpone sex; but, of course, this advice will not work for all teens. The Center for Population Options estimates that "78 percent of teens aged fifteen to nineteen are sexually active" and that "over 20 percent of high-schoolers have had four or more partners" (Arbuckle). These teens who are already sexually active "need to be taught that AIDS is an infectious disease that can be spread by sexual contact" (Cohn). Teens must understand that it is not only acceptable but mandatory to ask for a sexual history and/or proof of good health from their sexual partners. They must also learn the correct use of condoms, the correct condoms to use, and how to insist that their partners use these devices. Many health educators are promoting the ABC's of AIDS education: "Abstinence, Be Monogamous, and Condoms" (Eaton 67).

In addition to exposing themselves to AIDS through sexual encounters, teens often expose themselves to AIDS when they experiment with drugs. Drug use is very dangerous for two reasons. First, when teens are high on drugs, they may not remember to take all of the precautions that are needed to make themselves and their partners safe from the AIDS virus. Second, when teens experiment with IV drugs, they tend to share needles with other drug users. Such behaviors are among the biggest reasons documented for the spread of HIV .

In addition to children and teens, young women of child-bearing age must also be educated. It is estimated that "100,000 such women in the U.S. are infected with the HIV virus (Kotulak). The education of this group of young women, however, many be the most difficult because "73 percent of these young mothers are minority, low-income urban women who face poverty, poor health, lack of access to adequate care, and educational disadvantage" (Hutchings 4). Nevertheless, these women need to learn to use safe sex precautions. They must be taught to modify their behavior in such a way as to remove themselves from possible exposure. Of course, the only true way to reach these women and to prevent the spread of AIDS to their children is to teach them before they acquire the disease themselves. However, getting the information to this particular high-risk group is very difficult and remains a problem that has yet to be solved.

Thus, health officials are not optimistic about the possibility of soon curbing the rate of pediatric AIDS because, of the children with AIDS, "80 percent acquire the deadly disease from their infected mothers before, during or after birth" (Kotulak). HIV may be transmitted from infected mothers to their infants in the womb by the passage of the virus through the placenta, during labor and delivery through exposure to infected blood and vaginal secretions or after birth through breast-feeding. In addition, women who are spreading AIDS to their children tend to be IV drug users or are associated with IV drug users. Because these women are difficult to reach with home or school educational information, other sources of education must be found. One hypothetical solution would be to provide health education and prevention through public health clinics or welfare departments. Although this approach would be very expensive to initiate and maintain, the cost of prevention would be far less than the care of these women and their infants when they actually contract AIDS.

The only way to limit the growing number of AIDS cases in our country is through behavioral changes brought about by education. Education must be introduced early, preferably to young school-aged children, and continued throughout a child's teenage years. Educational messages about AIDS must be reinforced through "informed networks, including the family, religious organizations, peer groups, and the community" (Lenaghan and Lenaghan 18). These programs must personalize the information and promote healthy attitudes toward sexuality. This education will better arm America's youth to help themselves help each other. This, in turn, will help society to a healthier AIDS-free future.

Works Cited
Arbuckle, Leann. Personal interview. 28 Feb. 1995.

Cohn, D'Vera. "AIDS in School: Walking a Tightrope." Washington Post 2 Nov 1992: A33.

Colman, Warren. Understanding and Preventing AIDS: A Guide for Young People. Chicago: Children's Press, 1988.

Eaton, Susan. "AIDS Education Must Go Beyond the Condom Wars." Education Digest Dec. 1993: 66-68.

Hutchings, John J. "Pediatric AIDS: An Overview." Children Today May/June 1992: 4-7.

Kotulak, Ronald. "AIDS Cases Increasing Among Kids." Chicago Tribune 1 Feb. 1987: Sec. 1: 1+.

Lenaghan, Donna D., and Michael J. Lenaghan. "AIDS and Education: The Front Line of Prevention." The Futurist Nov-Dec. 1993: 17-21.


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