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24.03.2004 Regional News

Fighting HIVAIDS from the classroom

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Accra, March 24, GNA - Despite the numerous initiatives including public education on HIV/AIDS, sexual behaviour continues to be a major reason for the rapid spread of the disease and many new infected cases being recorded.

Over 40 million people throughout the world have been infected with the virus as at the end of 2003 and in the same year, five million new cases were recorded with 14, 000 new cases reported daily.

Though the current HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the country is 3.4 per cent there should not be complacency since the situation could explode to alarming proportion in no time.

The effect of the disease on the development of children could be devastating. A report by the Institute of Statistical and Economic Research (ISSER) on HIV/AIDS estimated that 170,000 Ghanaian children have been orphaned and 173,098 have been identified to be vulnerable to being infected with the disease.

Significantly, the study that was funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ghana AIDS Commission was aimed at providing information for the Government to formulate a national policy on children affected by the epidemic.

For too long, AIDS has been presented as just a health problem but the time is ripe for it to be considered as a developmental issue as it affects social life, productivity and national growth.

Individuals and educational institutions should be encouraged to research into the disease and Government and health institutions must collaborate efforts to facilitate the efficient use of scarce resources to promote a strong national HIV/AIDS response.

It is high time the fight against the disease was sent to the classrooms to equip children with the requisite knowledge about HIV/AIDS for them to develop positive attitude and skills necessary to reduce their vulnerability to the disease.

The proposed establishment of Public Health School for HIV/AIDS and Drug Abuse Prevention Studies at Denu in the Ketu District of the Volta Region should be welcome news to Ghanaians.

The institution, which would be expected to cater for Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Ghana, would train specialists in the management and prevention of HIV/AIDS and drug abuse.

The school would be unique because it would run courses for groups and individuals in Psychotherapy for HIV/AIDS patients and Drug Abuse Prevention, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Specialist Management, Mental Health Specialist Programme, Demography, Epidemiology, Law and Ethics.

Mr Ernest Duru, former Regional Staff Council of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Mitrovica, Kosovo, Founder and Director of the School, told the Ghana News Agency that the threat of HIV/AIDS and drug abuse on reproductive health required a further step in mobilising specialists to champion the fight against the two cankers in Africa. He said qualified entrants to the school would include teachers, nursing officers, health educators and social workers.

Mr Duru said the school, which would offer three-month specialist diploma programme and would require extensive fieldwork within and outside the West African Sub-Region would be linked up to international organisations like UNESCO.

Teaching HIV/AIDS and drug abuse as subjects in schools rather than perceiving them with morbid fears, as a disease condition will provide more long-lasting prevention strategies to Ghanaians.

Government has already demonstrated it readiness to support research activities into clinical care and all forms of treatment both orthodox and traditional medicines to prevent the psychosocial consequences of persons living with HIV/AIDS.

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports and the Ghana AIDS Commission can solicit the assistance of the UNICEF to develop life skills curriculum to be piloted in some schools, evenly divided between boys and girls to complement the programme of the Public Health School. If this becomes a national strategy to stop the epidemic, the plan could be expanded to all schools in the country. Teachers should be thoroughly trained in teaching AIDS prevention, before allowing them to implement such a programme.

Because HIV prevalence in Ghana is low among children, such a programme would provide a special opportunity to affect the course of the epidemic.

But because children will probably become sexually active when they are about 13 or 14, the focus should be abstinence, and when they are about 14 or 15 they should be taught about safe sex.

The programme to teach skills in the classroom should be designed to have a broader impact than fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS. Life skills education would actually, provide a foundation for young people to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.

Apart from being given the chance to learn how to avoid AIDS, young people should be given the opportunity to learn about gender relations and about their abilities to take control over their lives.

Of course, children, particularly girls, should be empowered to enable them to be on their own socially and economically and to be able to decide on their reproductive health before they become adults.

"I always go for young girls because they won't get pregnant and won't have HIV," says a 22 year-old man in the drinking bar during a conversation about the disease.

The man may look harmless, but to girls, they spell danger. The man said: "My present girlfriend is only 14 and we have sex about once a week without using condom because I know as young as she is my girlfriend would not get pregnant and I trusts her. If I trust her then she must trust me".

While the man's understanding of how HIV/AIDS is transmitted and his knowledge about when and how girls get pregnant is fairly limited, there is a cavalier logic behind his theory that he is safe from infection because younger girls are less likely to carry the virus that leads to AIDS.

What doesn't seem to weigh on his mind is the possibility that the girlfriend might have started having sex before he met her and could, therefore be carrying the virus and the fact that any girl who menstruates could become pregnant.

Life skills classes if introduced could help young people find solution to such problem and would not be scared about getting AIDS or getting pregnant because young people would be taught about AIDS, sex and reproductive health at school.

But the battle in schools against AIDS must be taken up at the highest political level as is done in Uganda and many other countries where the disease is spreading fast.

Though President John Agyekum Kufuor and Government officials talk openly about AIDS, they should work with all groups and opinion leaders including religious leaders and teaches to educate children about sex and the disease.

This, notwithstanding, the role of parents in such a crusade would be indispensable since children spend much time in the home than at school.

There is no point in burying heads in the sand as many parents do by insisting that people should not talk about sex for fear that such discussions might corrupt the children. The fact is that some of them already know what sex is and practice it, during their early age.

After all, no one can prevent children from discussing sex with their peers, listening to it on radio, watching it on the television and Internet and reading about it from magazines and newspapers.

For an effective HIV/AIDS campaign, apart from sending the message on the disease to the classroom, parents should boldly educate their children on safe sex, the pandemic and other sexually transmitted diseases before they become sexually active.

Discussions on sex in the classroom and at home, especially when HIV/AIDS seem to be spreading at an alarming rate, should not be considered a taboo because such self-confidence and knowledge can offer hope for Ghana's future in the fight against the disease.

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