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Education Slows Spread of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa

A new study says a good education can help slow the spread of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. The study says it acts as a social vaccine against the disease.

Penn State University Professor David Baker is sharply critical of many HIV/AIDS awareness programs. He describes them as "scandalous," saying they're "so simplistic and minimalist."

He says, "The idea has always been, and we think it's not a good one, that if you just give people the facts behavior will follow. And we find that that's not the case. The programs of prevention, the content is going to have to get much more explicit. It's going to have to work with people to have them understand what is the causal agent in the transmission of the disease and inform them more."

But just because people know the facts about HIV/AIDS doesn't mean they understand them.

"Let me give you an example, which is both tragic and I think very illustrative. In some of our work we were interviewing people in a rural village in sub-Saharan Africa. And we were talking to a man, who is illiterate, and we were asking him about the transmission of AIDS. And we asked him can you get HIV from a blood transfusion and he gave the correct answer. He said yes. And then he said but not if you wear a condom," he says.

Despite memorizing all the facts, the man in the village was not able to make good use of them. This, says Baker, is where education comes in.

"Obviously facts are important. You need to know the basic facts, but beyond that what education does is it helps you think about how those facts go together. And it helps you develop, what we could call, a working theory, a working model of the disease and your risk. So we think that just basic education has a major effect on how people think about risk and that's what we mean in terms of a social vaccine," he says.

There was a time, however, in the earlier years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when having an education was actually considered a risk factor in sub-Saharan Africa.

"In sub-Saharan Africa, where now the medical establishment pretty much agrees that probably that's where the virus began, it was misdiagnosed or undiagnosed for a long time because people often don't die directly from AIDS. They die from other types of infections when the immune system is compromised," he says.

Baker, an education and sociology professor, says early on the combination of wrong information and intentional misinformation allowed HIV/AIDS to spread among Africa's educated population, especially men. On the one hand they didn't have all the facts to analyze and on the other, for various reasons, believed it was safe to have multiple sex partners.

Baker says, "Its diagnosis in the gay population in the United States particularly and Western Europe got it labeled as a gay disease and as a disease that seemed to be only in wealthy countries. Although people at that time were already dying in Africa from AIDS-related complications."

So, as AIDS spread among the educated in sub-Saharan Africa, education itself was viewed as a risk factor.

"That's changed since the early to mid-90s, when better information was put out. African governments got more responsible and were more open about the disease. Now, among younger cohorts, education is acting as what we call (a) social vaccine against new HIV infections," he says.

The Penn State study, conducted in 11 African countries, appears in Prospects, a journal published by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.