Last night I went to see the 20th Anniversary concert of Rent @rentinconcert with my co-Rent addict @smunnings01. Rent is a musical set in the East Village of New York in the early 90s. It is about love, life and HIV. I first saw the musical almost 16 years ago when I had only been working in HIV and sexual health for a couple of years. At that time many more people - friends and colleagues - were still dying from AIDS related illnesses with horrifying frequency.
Each year the Health Protection Agency publishes statistics on HIV. By the end of 2011 an estimated 96,000 people were living with HIV in the UK. It is estimated that about a quarter of those do not know they are infected.
The first time I saw Rent was the day my Grandad died. He was old and he had been ill. I understood his death and although of course I was upset, it made sense to me. As a young gay man in my early 20s I was still struggling to make sense of the assault of HIV on the gay community. In my professional life I was learning about the UK policy response to the epidemic. I was also trying to make sense of what HIV meant for me having newly arrived in London. I remember very clearly sitting in the theatre and being overwhelmed and angry by the devastation AIDS was causing in individuals, families and communities, and simultaneously uplifted by the optimism of the play.
In 1987 FPA published an excellent training handbook on HIV and AIDS by Hilary Dixon and Peter Gordon called Working with Uncertainty. In their introductory chapter they say because HIV infection is still shrouded in fear, myth, exaggeration and confusion.... Fast forward 25 years or show and that fear, myth, exaggeration and confusion about HIV still exists especially, but not exclusively, amongst the young. Over a decade ago Ofsted reported that teaching about HIV was inadequate in too many schools.
At that time the DfEE was demonstrating clear leadership on PSHE and responded positively to Ofsted's report. They funded National Children's Bureau and Sex Education Forum to produce a teaching resource to help schools. Teaching and Learning about HIV updated and brought together all of the excellent materials that had been produced to help teachers and others working with young people to educate them about HIV. It is available here http://www.ncb.org.uk/hiv/resources-for-professionals/teaching-learning-about-hiv.
Fast forward another ten years - bringing us right up to now in the 21st Century - and the Sex Education Forum carries out research that tells us 1 in 4 young people learnt nothing about HIV and AIDS in schools. The research also shows significant gaps in knowledge and information.
As one young person in the SEF research said "Just because we are afraid of the way AIDS can affect our lives doesn't mean we hide it under the rug. Speaking about it will keep knowledge up. And with that knowledge comes the power to help ourselves."
Wise words indeed. Combine this insight with the fact the report also identified almost half said they did not think they had learnt what they needed about HIV at school and we should all be worried - parents, education and health professionals and politicians alike.
Policy and decision makers in school, local, regional and national level would do well to heed this information when making decisions about school and community based sex and relationships education and services for young people. Here is the report www.ncb.org.uk/media/333229/young_people_experiences_of_hiv_and_aids.pdf
Tackling HIV requires a multi-faceted universal and targeted approach and there are many excellent organisations with detailed information and advice about HIV including Terence Higgins Trust www.tht.org.uk, National AIDS Monitor www.nam.org.uk, National AIDS Trust www.nat.org.uk.
PSHE along with good teaching about HIV in science is one critical and important part of our response to tackling HIV. Whilst many teachers in schools and professionals in community settings are providing incredibly good learning experiences about HIV, too many young people have been let down by inadequate education about HIV in the past. Many of us hoped that would change with the outcomes of the Government's PSHE review.
Last month Gove published that Review and essentially left it to schools to decide what to do. This decision lets down another generation of young people. Brook and other expert organisations, teachers, parents and young people agree that the status quo isn't good enough. It has failed too many young people. Our job now is to work together to improve teaching about HIV as part of a comprehensive package of PSHE and education about sexually transmitted infections in science.
As Professor Jane Anderson, Chair of the British HIV Association tweeted in response to an earlier version of this blog biomedical and scientific advances aplenty, but without teaching and learning their power just evaporates. Education key. We cannot and must not allow another commentator to be writing in ten years time that we still haven't got a grip on teaching children and young people about HIV education once and for all.
To help us there are many excellent resources including this online resource for schools and others to address the issues with young people: Positive? Awareness of and Attitudes to HIV www.learningpositive.com.