Teachers are key to Aids war

14th July 2000 at 01:00
The anti-HIV drive in Africa has been dealt a mortal blow by spiralling teacher deaths. Peter Moszynski reports.

BASIC education and health care are crucial in the fight against Aids, the United Nations Children's Fund says in a new report, Progress of Nations.

As activists gathered in Durban, South Africa, this week to discuss the HIV epidemic, new figures showed that in the world's worst-affected region, sub Saharan Africa, the disease is hitting the people most crucial to HIV prevention - teachers.

In poor countries like Zambia, where annual health spending is less than pound;7 per head and even cost-price anti-viral drugs are scarcely an option, education is the only way to contain the problem. Yet in 1998, almost as many teachers died of Aids as graduated - 1,400 deaths in 10 months compared to 1,700 graduations.

Last year 860,000 children in Africa lost teachers to Aids. Schooling is also disrupted when teachers are ill or absent caring for sick relatives.

"All over sub-Saharan Africa, hard-won gains in school enrolment are being eroded," the report said.

In Zambia, where one in five young women is HIV positive, 75 per cent had basic awareness of the causes of Aids, yet over half the sexually-active girls saw themselves at no risk.

Research shows that changing behaviour only succeeds when undrlying attitudes, values and life skills are tackled. The most effective way to change adolescent behaviour is through peer education in schools.

The UNICEF report warned: "Schools are key to reducing the impact of the disease. Countries' efforts to develop school-based programmes to control HIVAids have been dealt a mortal blow, and assistance from the international community is urgently needed."

The report indicated that HIV transmission now occurs most heavily among 15 to 24-year-olds, with girls especially at risk.

In Botswana one in three young women and one in seven young men are HIV positive; in both South Africa and Zimbabwe the figures are one in four and one in 10. Ten other African countries have rates above one in 10 and one in 20.

Worldwide, more than 10 million young people are HIV positive. On average, women contract HIV 10 years earlier than men, reflecting their lack of education due to poverty, local traditions, violence and religious bias.

"One young person contracts HIV every 10 seconds: a kid with a death sentence," said Stephen Woodhouse, UNICEF regional director for Europe. He urged a reduction in debt payments by poor countries to free funds for spending on education and health.

"The failure to invest in these kids is creating a timebomb for the future," he said.

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