THERE is a critical need in developing countries to educate pre-teenage schoolchildren about HIV-Aids, educationists from around the world agreed at a conference preceding last week's Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Durban.
By the time young people become sexually active, which in many Commonwealth countries can be in their early teens or before, they need to have learned skills that will help them to avoid HIV infection - and save their lives.
The full horror of an epidemic that is destroying human development in Africa, and now also in south-east Asia, unfolded at a meeting on the impact of HIV-Aids, attended by 165 delegates and hosted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Commonwealth Medical Association and the University of Natal.
Of 34 million people infected with HIV-Aids worldwide, around 20 million are in sub-Saharan Africa. The disease is spreading rapidly: six million people were infected last year alone. Life expectancy in five sub-Saharan African countries has plummeted from 61 to under 40 years in just a few years.
In a communique to the heads of government meeting, the conference called on governments urgently to tackle the epidemic, to take a leadership role in acknowledging its critical impacts and for a "dramatic increase worldwide" in resources devoted to containing HIV-Aids, through education campaigns, care of people living with the disease, affordable drug therapy and pursuit of a vaccine that is effective in developing countries.
Increasingly, the very young are being infected. In South Africa, one in four students on some university campuses is HIV-positive, and more than 12 per cent of people under the age of 20 are believed to be infected. President Thabo Mbeki said last year that the country faces "the danger that half of our youth will not reach adulthood".
There has been much ethical debate about sex education for the very young. One side says it is immoral to give children sexual encouragement.
Others argue that it is essential to provide children with life skills - and that, in the context of HIV-Aids, ignoring sex education may condemn people to death.
Commonwealth educators took the latter view. Mary Crewe, director of the Centre for the Study of Aids at the University of Pretoria, said "the younger HIV Aids education starts, the better".
The conference view was that protecting lives comes first, but that the mode of delivering HIV-Aids education should be sensitive to age and culture.