Latvia is currently the leader among newly uncovered HIV cases in Europe. On top of that, nearly 10% of all HIV infected are youngsters, says public health specialist Baltic HIV Association member Anda Ķīvīte.
«This is nothing Latvia should be proud of. Looking at ways out of this situation, we have to conclude that a great deal of responsibility should be taken by schools and the country’s education system. Success stories are cases when parents, schools, doctors and other specialists consult youngsters about HIV. But reality is different – more than half of youngsters have not spoken with their parents about topics associated with sex and reproductive health. HIV is a very rare topic for parent/child conversations. In addition, a study performed a couple of years ago showed that parents’ knowledge about HIV are insufficient. This means even if parents discuss this topic with children, the question is whether this information is true or not. This is why schools become the only place for youngsters to acquire information about this infection and ways to avoid it,» says Ķīvīte.
The level of infection for youngsters is undeniably high. There are 133 infected people in Latvia for the 13 to 25 age group. This means approximately one youngster per every 2,000. In the years of Latvia’s independence, 26 have died from HIV. One of the reasons for that is the lack of knowledge about HIV, says the member of Baltic HIV Association.
Ķīvīte notes that no surveys were performed to determine youngsters’ level of awareness. One survey in 2011 showed that knowledge about this virus in Latvia is very low. Education system plays an important role in this. However, there is another factor that definitely contributes to the level of infection among adults and youngsters: high prices on condoms in comparison with average prices in the country.
«It is a proven fact that to prevent new infection cases we need a very well-developed prevention system in place. It is only possible to prevent an epidemic if everything is fine on all three levels: from keeping society well-informed to providing treatment to infected people. It is possible to completely liquidate new infection cases entirely. Unfortunately, Latvia has serious problems on all three levels of preventive measures. This is observed on the first level – education of healthy people. While preventive measures such as vaccination are available for other diseases, in the case with HIV preventive measures consist of education and provision of accessibility of condoms. Unfortunately, Latvia has not been too active in this regard in recent years. The country also lacks effectiveness with second and third level measures, which are associated with HIV diagnosis and treatment provision for already infected patients,» says member of Baltic HIV Association.
She reminds that there is a large correlation between education system’s priorities and public health indexes. «This means schools are one of the cornerstones for improvement. Finland is a great example. This country has one of the best public health indexes in Europe. A lot of attention is provided to health education in schools. In the past, children in Latvia had special social sciences teachers in schools to explain important facts about health and sex education. Topics like anatomy and physiological changes are explained in schools today as well, but the hours allocated for these topics are insufficient. Nothing is explained about psychological and social aspects of sexual health, which is very important for growing youngsters to understand.»
«Education system is not entirely to blame for youngsters’ poor understanding of such topics. A great deal of responsibility is held by society as a whole: doctors and other healthcare specialists, parents, mass media and HIV infected people,» she continues.
The association’s member notes that peer education is one of the most effective ways of delivering important information. «What is most important is making sure education is performed in a complex and systematic manner, not as part of singular campaigns, when the most schools are able to afford is a couple of lectures every other year,» Ķīvīte adds.
Unfortunately sexual education in Latvia’s schools is hindered by amendments made to Education Law’s Section 10. Because of that, information that would otherwise be useful to youngsters but considered provocative by some is often intentionally left out. Even teachers who try to educate children about matters associated with reproductive health do not want to risk their careers in the face of the law. This means instead of scientifically based proof, we pick quiet belief that problems do not exist if no one speaks about them, she explains.