Education: The Only Vaccine We Have. (Halt and Begin to Reverse the Spread of HIV/AIDS)

By Katsigeorgis, John | UN Chronicle, December 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Education: The Only Vaccine We Have. (Halt and Begin to Reverse the Spread of HIV/AIDS)


Katsigeorgis, John, UN Chronicle


A theatre troupe in Seshego township near Pietersburg, South Africa uses theatre to educate the public about HIV/AIDS. Phakama, which means "Rise, stand up", travels throughout the township, bringing its message to the local population and encouraging participation. This is one of the many ways AIDS education has diversified to reach a wider audience and help stop the epidemic spread of the disease. Other methods of prevention have been sought, because creating a vaccine or even providing treatment for a disease that is constantly mutating and becoming resistant to drugs may take many more years.

Finding alternative solutions has been a problem plaguing the medical community since HIV/AIDS was discovered. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has chosen to take a different approach in the fight against AIDS by using education, not medicine, to stop its spread. "UNESCO's strategy for HIV/AIDS preventive education" states that the impact of the disease on society could be reduced by battling complacency, advancing commitment and improving care. It has created a five-part strategy based on advocacy at all levels, customizing the message for various socio-economic groups, changing risk behaviour and vulnerability, caring for the infected and the affected, and coping with the institutional impact of AIDS on society.

The critical factor for a renewed and effective strategy for preventive education is massive, unfailing and unrelenting advocacy at all levels and support of political authorities at the highest national level, according to UNESCO.

To achieve this, audiences worldwide, starting with those most at risk, must be reached in culturally appropriate ways, and preventive education must be interconnected with the local way of life. Because of its interdisciplinary experience and worldwide mandate, UNESCO is suited to spread the message to a broad global audience.

Uneven distribution of knowledge is a main factor in the uneven distribution of infection rates worldwide. Comprehension and appreciation of prevention depend on many social factors, such as age, gender, education, economic conditions and religious beliefs.

The message must be tailored for different groups in order to enable them to understand and pass on the message. UNESCO believes that by using and disseminating information to help people understand what AIDS does to the body, it can reduce misconceptions and lessen vulnerability to the disease. However, it is important not to have negative campaigns as these often lead to stigmatization and discrimination. To reduce discrimination, UNESCO, in cooperation with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNALDS), plans to promote inclusive and compassionate attitudes based on human rights towards the infected and the affected.

Only through communication of knowledge can risk behaviour be changed. AIDS can be prevented if children and young people learn how the virus spreads and do not participate in risky behaviour. No institutions have a greater ability to affect all aspects of a community than schools, as they can reach the age group between 10 and 25, where most new infections occur each year.

UNESCO believes that even younger children should learn about AIDS and how it can be contracted, as part of their primary education. However, schools alone cannot disseminate information about prevention because they do not reach many other groups at greater risk of contraction, such as soldiers and migrant and sex workers. The media must also spread the message of prevention and educate people about the disease. An example of using other sources to disseminate knowledge about AIDS can be seen in Phayao, Thailand, where health office staff regularly visit brothels to distribute condoms and explain safe sexual practices, in order to stop the spread of the disease in sex workers, 60 per cent of whom are infected. …

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