The HIV/AIDS pandemic is killing teachers at alarming rates in many developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, delivering devastating blows to students in those countries, their future job possibilities and quality of life.
These observations are supported by a World Bank study that warns that in some countries AIDS is killing teachers at a faster rate than replacements can be trained. These are important facts to keep in mind when allocating resources for HIV-prevention programs.
Why are these teachers so susceptible to HIV/AIDS? Teachers in rural and impoverished areas in developing countries make more money than the general population. They travel more and are more able to afford illicit unions with infected students and other women they meet. In many of these countries, women are taught to be submissive to men, particularly men in positions of authority. Male teachers can exploit this submissiveness.
As a consequence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, there is increased teacher absenteeism and loss of educators, inspectors, planners and management personnel. Although these losses are more evident in sub-Saharan African countries, they occur throughout the developing world. The pandemic affects not only the supply of education but the quality and management of education at local, regional and national levels.
In Mozambique, experts predict that AIDS will kill significant numbers of teachers and school administrators, and will also have a severe impact on school enrollment. According to some statistics, almost 30 percent of teachers in South Africa are HIV positive, a higher infection rate than in the general population. In Ivory Coast, every week, six teachers die of AIDS, according to a 1998 government study, and the number has probably gone up since then. In several places, private spending on educational fees and other expenses fell almost by half in households with someone with AIDS.
In Zambia, two teachers die for every one that graduates from training school. A Grade 4 school (smallest school) in Zambia has an average of five teachers. Statistics from Zambia's ministry of education show that one teacher dies every day from AIDS-related diseases. This is the equivalent of the ministry of education closing down one school per week due to loss of teachers.
According to UNAIDS estimates, the annual per-capita income of half the countries of sub-Saharan Africa is falling by 0.5-1.2 percent and the GDP in the most-affected countries may decline by 8 percent by 2010. Because of its economic impact, AIDS is reversing decades of slow improvement in child survival, life expectancy, educational progress and economic growth.
In many cases, teachers themselves are poorly informed or not informed at all regarding HIV/AIDS prevention. In addition, many African men are not only reluctant to use condoms but many women do not want men to use them either, since they feel that by using condoms their spouses/companions are questioning their virtue.
Paradoxically, education itself can be a formidable weapon against AIDS. Several studies have shown that infection rates are lower among educated women. In the 1990s, HIV infection rates in Zambia fell by almost 50 percent among educated women, while there was almost no decline in those who hadn't gone to school. In Uganda, infection rates are lower among girls who have attended high school.
The fact that in many countries teachers are dying in great numbers by the infection indicates that new and more effective strategies have to be devised to address this issue. Teachers need to be better educated not only about HIV/AIDS and its transmission, but also on how to become better advocates in the fight against the infection.
It is crucial to introduce life-skills curricula early in primary school, since HIV-prevention activities have been shown to be more effective among youngsters who are not yet sexually active. Among the important components of the life-skills curricula are issues of gender equity, how to develop healthy lifestyles and healthy reproductive attitudes, and an understanding of when and how to protect yourself from the HIV infection. Life skills should be taught in an environment with other HIV-prevention interventions.
It is also critical to empower women when they are young. This can help them deal better with sexual advances by teachers and other men. In several countries, there is the widespread belief that by having sex with young women, men can be cured of AIDS.
Because of both biological and cultural reasons, girls ages 15 to 24 in Africa are several times more likely than boys of the same age to be infected with HIV. In Africa, almost 60 percent of HIV-infected people are female, and among teenagers infected with HIV, more than 75 percent are girls. Sex education, when combined with improved communication skills, often leads to delayed sexual initiation, fewer sexual partners and increased use of condoms.
At the same time, governments have to make provisions to replace the current and estimated future loss of personnel in the education sector. Among those provisions is the need to develop new technologies and alternative and innovative ways of making AIDS education available to children. At stake are not only children's lives, but also the countries' future development.
Dr. César Chelala is an international medical consultant and the author of "AIDS: A Modern Epidemic," a publication of the Pan American Health Organization. He writes extensively on HIV/AIDS issues.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company