Britain's youth complacent about HIV/AIDS

  • A decline in 12-15 year olds’ knowledge about the dangers of HIV/AIDS
  • The more young people feel in control of their health, the less likely they are to worry about HIV/AIDS
  • Better understanding of sexual health is not always matched with less worry

New data from surveys across the UK reveal a decline in 12-15 year olds’ knowledge about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Figures from 1995-2001, using a sample of 142,281 young people, show a declining trend of youngsters who think that HIV can be passed on by:

  • Drug taking (sharing needles)

For example, in 1995 82% of 12-13 year old females compared with 59% of the same age group in 2001, said Yes - HIV can be passed on by sharing needles when taking drugs

  • Receiving blood via a blood transfusion in the UK

For example, in 1995 45% of 14-15 year old females compared with 33% of the same age group in 2001, said Yes - HIV can be passed when receiving blood in the UK via a blood transfusion

  • Contact with blood in First Aid

For example, in 1995, 49% of 12-13 year old males compared with 36% of the same age group in 2001, said Yes - HIV can be passed when coming into contact with blood during First Aid

  • Sex without condoms

For example, in 1995, 77% of 12-13 year old males compared with 63% of the same age group in 2001, said Yes - HIV can be passed on by having sex without condoms

When looking at the responses to all the options, knowledge about the dangers of HIV/AIDS is greater with the females than the males in some year groups with the best knowledge with the 14-15 year old females.

Young People taking care not to get infected with HIV Data from 1995-2001 show little change in the numbers of young people that report they will take care not to get infected with HIV. For example, around 89% in 1995 compared to around 86% in 2001, said they would take care.

The Schools Health Education Unit reported in March on data from over 225,000 young people between 1993-2003 which showed that fewer 12-15 year olds reported worrying about HIV/AIDS. In 1993 up to 34% of 12-15 year olds were worried ‘quite a lot/a lot’ about this problem. This has reduced to around 7% in 2003.

We have recently explored this issue further and discovered that the more that young people feel in control of their health, the less likely they are to worry about HIV/AIDS. For example, 16% of Year 10 females who scored highest for perceived control worried at least ‘a little’ about HIV/AIDS, compared with 27% of females of the same age who scored lowest for control.

This is a finding we warmed to, in as much as we hope that, as far as is realistic, young people should be encouraged to take responsibility for their decisions and control of their health, and we believe that with appropriate information and skills, young people can manage their lives in such a way as to avoid risks, and also, to some extent, worry.

This positive picture is reinforced when we look at self-esteem related to their understanding of HIV/AIDS: self-esteem is highest among those pupils who correctly state that HIV/AIDS can be treated but not cured. We also saw that better knowledge of contraception is associated with better understanding of sexually transmitted infections. However, it may be that other data tell us a different story.

Data from 2003 show that perhaps contrary to our best hopes, better understanding of sexual health is not always matched with less worry.

For example, among the 14-15 year old females in our 2003 sample who correctly thought that having sex without penetration could be relied upon to prevent sexually transmitted infections like HIV, we saw more worry about HIV and AIDS (16% worried at least ‘quite a lot’ compared with 12% among those who thought that non-penetrative sex could not be relied on).

Similarly, among 14-15 year old males, we offered a list of contraceptive methods and asked if they had heard of each of them, or if they had a view on their reliability to prevent pregnancy or HIV infection.

The males who said ‘never heard of it’ or ‘know nothing about it’ for items on the list were less likely to worry about HIV/AIDS, while those who were more certain about contraceptive methods were also more likely to worry about HIV/AIDS (21% compared with 15%). (A similar but less significant difference was seen among the 14 –15 year old females.)

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