AIDS education in public schools remains a challenge

Posted on 07 Dec 2006 at 7:48pm
By Beth Freed – Staff Writer

Local AIDS advocate says DISD not doing enough to educate student population on HIV and sexually transmitted diseases

As the rate of HIV/AIDS infections continues to climb, education about the prevention of the disease remains a challenge.

The Bush administration has succeeded in pushing its abstinence-only perspective onto the national and global scenes since George W. Bush traded in the Texas Governor’s Mansion for the White House.

In 2000, when Bush left his eight-year stint in Texas for D.C., Texas was the fifth highest state for teen pregnancy rates, with 101 out of 1,000 15-to-19-year old girls pregnant, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Texas had the fourth highest number of cumulative HIV/AIDS cases, with 67,227 cases reported through December 2005, according to StateHealthFacts.org.

According to Ivette Cruz Weis of Dallas Independent School District Media Services, the district educates about HIV prevention through: a CDC-sponsored grant for after-school programs at eight schools, public service announcements on district TV channels and peer-to-peer education. Human growth and development education is offered from fourth grade through 12th grade. Health education is required for sexually-transmitted diseases, and teacher/staff development.

Cruz Weis did not specify what was discussed during health education.

But Raeline Nobles, executive director of AIDS Arms, said the school district’s HIV education program is insufficient.

“We don’t go to Dallas ISD for prevention advocacy, because they aren’t open to talking about condoms.” said Nobles. “It’s not effective or realistic.
Personally, I think it’s insulting, because the pregnancy and syphilis rates in this county show that young people are having sex, and all you’re allowed to say is don’t do it.”

AIDS Arms reaches out to multiple populations to encourage safer behaviors, Nobles said. The agency works with 20 to 30 recently-released prisoners every month on prevention case management and with youth both in and out of the criminal justice system, with a three-week course on wellness and healthy decision-making. AIDS Arms also has a specific outreach program for addicts, reaching out to those on cocaine, crack, methamphetamines and alcohol particularly, Nobles said.

“We buy as many condoms as we can, and they go out the door as soon as they get here,” said Nobles. “We run out two or three times a year, but businesses like Condoms to Go and Condom Sense help keep us in supply.”

The Women’s Outreach Center, part of AIDS Arms, works for all women, but has been focusing on women of color, since the spread of the disease has been rampant in those populations, Nobles said, adding that prevention of HIV transmission through lesbian sexual contact continues to remain just barely on the radar.

Although infection rarely occurs when women have sex with other women, the exposure of mucous membranes in the mouth to vaginal secretions can pass the disease. Female condoms and dental dams are recommended to help prevent the spread of STDs for women having sex with women.

Women should not share their sex toys, and should wash them after every use, according to a CDC report. However, the report noted that women who self-identify as lesbian or bisexual often engage in other behaviors that put them at risk for infection, such as intravenous drug use and sex with bisexual/gay men, so safety should be exercised on every level.

Condoms aren’t the only forbidden fruits of HIV prevention. In the state of Texas, needle exchange programs to help stop transmission of the virus between IV drug users are not legal. Nobles said that there are a few unofficial needle exchange programs locally and throughout the state, but you have to be in the know to find them. Because they are technically illegal, they are not very well funded and struggle to attain their mission: providing health to all, regardless of lifestyle or habits, she said.

“Few states allow needle exchange programs, which is unfortunate,” said Nobles. “They’ve been shown to work well in Europe.”

On World AIDS Day, 22 protestors were arrested in front of the White House when a U.S. Park officer said their permit had been revoked, according to The Washington Post. The demonstrators called for Congress to address a law banning District funds from needle-exchange programs and to increase training for health care workers in developing countries. Some had traveled from Africa to speak their minds.

While safer-sex advocates promote the use of clean needles, wearing condoms and generally avoiding high-risk behaviors, scientists are dutifully working on a medical alternative that they hope will become a major foot soldier in the fight against AIDS.

Microbicides will offer topical options for STD/HIV protection, through creams, gels and sponges, although they are not on the market yet. The HIV/AIDS vaccine, while not ready to be released anytime soon, shows promise for preventing infection and slowing the progression of HIV to AIDS in the future, some experts say.

“The development of an HIV vaccine can best be described as a marathon, not a sprint,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, president and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, a not-for-profit, public-private partnership. “If the most promising vaccines we are testing in efficacy trials today turn out to work well and we’ll know this in less than two years then we can move ahead with final testing and manufacturing. If they are not effective, then more research will have to be done to design other more effective vaccines, and that will take longer,” Berkley said.

Many obstacles stand in the way of an HIV/AIDS vaccine, most notably funding and manufacturing capabilities. The Initiative needs to set up a commercial infrastructure so that when the drug is approved for sale, it can automatically get shipped to the places it’s needed most.

There are currently 30 preventive vaccine candidates being tested in about two dozen countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, where the pandemic is most acute. Since the HIV virus rapidly mutates and weakens the immune system itself, it has been difficult to find an effective formula, an Initiative spokesperson said. Using a weakened form of the virus is not an option and no recovered individual has ever been documented.

“The science of designing an AIDS vaccine remains complex and is a major obstacle in the search for the vaccine,” said Berkley. “Sustained and flexible funding is also vital, since developing an AIDS vaccine will be a long-term undertaking, and new priority activities will emerge as the field advances.”

So far, 25 million people have died from the 25-year long AIDS epidemic. Only personal education and precaution will stop those numbers from increasing over the next quarter-century, advocates warn. In the meantime, they urge everyone to enjoy their sexuality safely, to find ways to make condoms playful and pleasurable, and to always remember to spread the word.

E-mail freed@dallasvoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, December 8, 2006.

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