Educating Our Way Out of HIV

Zack Parente
City College of New York, NY, USA

I find value in Zeke Emanuel’s comment that the international health community should be focused on improving the general health of needy areas rather than treating specific diseases such as HIV. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I worked as an HIV educator in a rural village in Botswana, where the HIV statistics were shockingly high. Around 33% of pregnant women seeking prenatal care at the village’s clinic were HIV positive. The Botswana Ministry of Health and foreign donors have spent a considerable amount of money in an effort to lower these numbers, but I found that their funding specifies too much for the treatment of HIV and does not attack the main cause of the spread of the disease.

As I worked in Botswana, I came to understand HIV prevention was being hindered by the way HIV education was being conducted. The educational system in Botswana and in many parts of Africa is centered on rote memorization rather than critical thinking and problem solving. Students are taught to memorize data in order to pass a standardized test and are not taught how to apply lessons learned in the classroom to their daily lives. This type of education was widely used for HIV education of both children and adults. When I taught HIV lessons at the local Primary School, the shortcomings of this system became apparent. When I asked if anyone knew what HIV stood for, half the class yelled out “Human Immunodeficiency Virus” in perfect English; however, they did not know what the words meant or how they could protect themselves from HIV. They had been taught to memorize data but were unable to critically think about the data or apply it to their lives.

The fact that this type of education will not be affective against the spread of HIV has come to the attention of many working in the places hit hardest by the epidemic. There are new programs such as Life Skills training, through which students are taught decision-making skills with an interactive educational model. Other programs have brought taboo subjects like sexual and reproductive health into an open forum. While these programs were developed for HIV prevention efforts, they also have general health benefits not specific to HIV. Hopefully, they will initiate a transformation to a more open and critical thinking education model.

If we want to see a reduction in HIV incidence as well as an increase in general health, efforts must be made to transform the educational systems of many of these countries. Although I agree with Zeke Emanuel’s statement of refocusing our HIV treatment funding, I argue that the decision-making and critical thinking education that has come out of some HIV education programs must be continued and expanded to general educational systems. Then we will have better educated and healthier populations in places hardest hit by HIV.

About the Author
Zack Parente

Originally from Rhode Island, Zack studied creative writing at the University of Southern California. After graduating, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana for 2 years where he performed HIV and health education. Upon returning to the U.S., Zack worked at Project ACHIEVE, an HIV research institute, while completing his prerequisites for medical school at The City College of New York. He is currently applying to medical school with plans of practicing medicine in underserved areas of the world.

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