Sunday November 18, 2001

Young people "Ignorant of Risks of Aids"

Ben Summerskill, society editor The Observer

Forty per cent of British 11-year olds have never heard of Aids, according to a study which shows young people are becoming worryingly more ignorant about the dangers of the disease.

A decade after Aids information was placed on the school curriculum, large numbers of adolescents just below the age of consent have little knowledge of how to avoid contracting HIV.

One in five 15-year-olds are unaware that having sex without a condom is "high risk".

"It's clear that young people"s knowledge and motivation to do something about Aids is declining," said Dr David Regis of the Schools Health Education Unit, which carried out the survey in 3,600 schools. "You don"t want them to be anxious, you want them to be safe, but they have to have adequate knowledge to do this."

"I never knew anyone with HIV," said Clint Walters, who contracted the virus at 17. "At school all they told us was the biological aspects of sex and pregnancy. I was told to wear a condom or you might get a woman pregnant. I"m sure I got HIV from a guy in London but he didn't look sick."

Walters, now 21, returned to school after his diagnosis and sat his A-levels a year later with a catheter under his jeans because of bladder problems caused by HIV-related illness. "You can't describe the pain of the diagnosis. My mum didn't even know I was gay."

Tim Smith, 22, from Brighton, contracted HIV when he will still a attending Roman Catholic school at 18. "There isn't a day when I don't regret not being taught about Aids. It was just never discussed at school. The entire focus of our sex education was about getting girls pregnant. They mentioned sexually transmitted diseases but we never got any detail.

"I meet people now who have HIV and at least they"re 30 or 40. They had some sort of a life before they were diagnosed. My entire adult life has been about dealing with HIV. I'm healthy and happy but I live with a shadow over me, worrying when the drugs will stop working."

Terry Joe, who promotes sexual health in Oxfordshire for the Terrence Higgins Trust, said: "It's terrible that so many young people still don"t have an adequate grasp of these issues. It's too easy for sexual health to fall off teachers' agendas because they don't know enough or they lack the confidence to discuss it.

"The lack of knowledge is even worse in poorer groups. We still find young people who think you can"t get pregnant if it's the first time. That"s the level of knowledge that we're dealing with. There is a huge challenge to normalise contraception and sex, so they can be discussed by parents and teachers without it being a big deal."

A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said: "One of the worst things that has happened was allowing parents to withdraw their children from sex education."

Other experts complain that Section 28, the controversial law forbidding the so called "promotion" of homosexuality, constrains teachers from discussing HIV.

Latest figures from the Department of Health show that 47,000 people in Britain have been diagnosed HIV-positive. More than 14,000 have died although the death rate has slowed with the introduction of "combination therapy", which mixes treatment drugs. Those who have contracted HIV through heterosexual intercourse are one of the fastest growing groups.

More than 40,000 children were questioned for the survey last year. Sixteen per cent of 15-year-old boys still believed that HIV can be contracted from a lavatory seat. A similar number identified kissing as a risk activity. The number of 11-year-olds who had never heard of Aids was 6 per cent up on 1999.

Experts believe that deaths from Aids of celebrities such as the actor Rock Hudson or the singer Freddie Mercury in the 1980s and early 1990s may have led to greater awareness of the illness. "Without those celebrity deaths," said Regis, "the subject has dropped off young people"s radar."

Clint Walters has set up Health Initiatives for Youth, an information service. Its youngest contact with HIV is just 15.

"It's only when you meet other young people with HIV that for the first time in your life you feel like a normal human being, not a freak," said Walters. "It's vital that young people don"t find themselves in the same position as me and say they never knew about HIV."