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
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
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.