Three days ago I started a petition to the Secretary of State for Education asking him to place the subject of HIV/AIDS on the sex education curriculum within UK secondary schools. Here’s why…
When we look at the timeline of HIV, it becomes surprisingly obvious how the majority of young people have very little, or no knowledge on the disease whatsoever. Worldwide panic and desperation for an effective HIV treatment throughout the 1980’s has been embedded in the minds of most who witnessed the AIDS pandemic at its horrifying peak. The leaflets fell through the letter boxes with no hesitation, and the ominous falling tombstone made its daily appearance aside John Hurt, warning Britain not to ‘die of ignorance’.
That was 28 years ago; and since the long-awaited advent of effective anti-retroviral therapy in 1995, it seems that the subject of HIV/AIDS has since plummeted in significance among the population of not only the UK, but the entire developed world. What was the last thing you remember seeing about HIV/AIDS within mainstream media? Chances are it was before the mid-nineties.
I was born a few months before the ground-breaking discovery that anti-retroviral drugs, used in combination would be affective in supressing the virus, and keeping those affected alive for prolonged periods of time. The estimated prognosis of someone living with HIV would then jump by decades over the short years that followed; and despite the occasional appearances in A&E departments, AIDS would become an avoidable thing of the past.
I am nineteen years old, and I was born in February 1995. I can unfortunately say that I received absolutely no information about HIV or AIDS at school, and I am not alone. It is clear that the majority of those who were born during or after the AIDS ‘peak’, seemed to have ‘missed the boat’ in learning anything about the disease, including (quite often) its very existence. And for this reason, three days ago I started a petition towards the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove; asking him to place the subject of HIV/AIDS upon the criteria of sex education within UK secondary schools.
My memories of Sex-Ed at school include listening to a teacher talk about the forbidden topics of pregnancy and chlamydia for a good hour. When I [in boredom] raised my hand and gingerly asked: “what about anal sex?”…my reply was nothing more than a look of disgust followed by the somewhat homophobic sentence: “oh, well…we do not recommend that”. This was a mandatory lesson given to me by the government to teach me about the adult life of safe sex and responsibility, and here I was being shunned for asking an “inappropriate” question.
So yesterday…at my college, I conducted a small survey on my three hour lunch break. I asked ten randomly selected young people (that I did not know) what they knew of HIV. My survey included five teenage girls, and five teenage boys; with a mean age of 17.10, ranging from 16 to 19 years. The chosen participants also included one gay male and one gay female, as well as one female who identified as asexual.
The majority of those asked (80%) did know HIV is sexually transmitted, however; 40% believed the disease is curable, and another 40% knew that effective treatment existed at all. When asked about how long someone with HIV would expect to live (with treatment), the responses were quite surprising: “A couple of years?”…”Maybe two years”…”15 years at most”…”Maybe 20 if they’re lucky” and: “I think about six months?”
Other responses included: “It can kill people right?”…”It’s the same thing as AIDS?” and: “You can die from it, I presume?” All of those asked said they had learnt nothing about HIV at secondary school level, and all of those asked said they would never consider a relationship with someone with HIV, the top reasons: “I don’t want to get it”…”Just in case there’s a chance, no way” and: “You never know what might happen, what if the condom broke?”
When asked if they thought it was possible to transmit HIV via saliva, 50% thought that it was possible, with one male participant saying: “Yeah, I’d say there is a high chance”. All of those asked believed the chances of a HIV+ woman (on treatment) passing on the virus to her unborn baby was over 40%, with one female saying it was “bound to be 100%”. Despite the small scale of those asked, this clearly shows how little young, intelligent people know about HIV or AIDS in 2014. It is also noteworthy to report that 2/10 students (one heterosexual female and one heterosexual male) had never heard of HIV at all.
I have to be honest: seeing the shocked, surprised and awkward faces of these 17 year olds when I disclosed my HIV status in front of them at the end of the questionnaire was quite hilarious; I guess my dark sense of humour is only something a few may understand.
But the key lesson from all this, is that something needs to change. Something needs to stop the rising infection rates within this youth demographic, teenagers afflicted by a disease they didn’t even know existed. Education is clearly the most effective answer, and for that reason, I ask you with every kindness to please take the time to sign my petition. You never know, you might be doing someone you know quite a favour.
Luke (you can follow Luke on twitter as @PositiveLuke)