With a vaccine for AIDS years away and no cure on the horizon, experts believe that the most effective treatment for AIDS is to prevent the occurrence of HIV infection. Health officials focus public education programs on altering risky behaviors linked to HIV transmission, particularly unsafe sexual practices and needle-sharing by intravenous drug users. Safe-sex campaigns sponsored by health clinics, social centers, schools, and churches encourage sexual abstinence or monogamy (sexual relations with only one partner). Education programs instruct about the proper way to use condoms to provide a protective barrier against transmission of HIV during sexual intercourse. Needle-exchange programs, which provide clean needles to drug users, enable intravenous drug abusers to avoid sharing HIV-contaminated needles.
Needle-exchange programs have been widely criticized because they seem to condone illicit drug use. However, numerous U.S. government-funded studies have indicated that such programs reduce HIV transmission without promoting greater drug use. To reduce the accidental transmission of HIV during medical procedures, both the United States and Canada have established strict guidelines for health-care settings, including the use of protective clothing and proper instrument disposal.
In the United States, the effectiveness of public education programs that target people at risk for HIV infection was well demonstrated in the gay community of San Francisco, California, in the 1980s. In 1982 and 1983, 6,000 to 8,000 people in San Francisco became infected with HIV. The gay community rallied to promote condom use and advocate monogamy through extensive education programs and public health advertisements geared for gay men. These public education programs were credited with reducing the number of gay men in San Francisco who became HIV infected. By 1993 the number of new infections declined to 1,000, and by 1999, fewer than 500 people were infected each year.
Public education about AIDS has also proven effective in other countries. Uganda was one of the first African countries to report cases of HIV infection. The first cases of AIDS were reported there in 1982, and by the late 1980s Uganda had one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. The Ugandan government was one of the first countries to set up a partnership with WHO to create a national AIDS control program called the AIDS Information Centre (AIC). The AIC has established extensive education programs promoting condom use and other methods to prevent HIV from spreading further. The program has also worked with community organizations to change social behaviors that increase the risk of HIV infection. The AIC promotes its message using innovative drama, song, and dance programs, a particularly effective communication method for African communities. AIC established confidential HIV testing services that provide same-day results and community counseling programs. As a result of Uganda’s quick response to the AIDS epidemic, the number of HIV infected people in that country has declined significantly since 1993, during a time when most other African nations faced a frightening increase in the incidence of HIV infection.
Public health officials have learned that education programs that teach and reinforce safe behaviors through a series of meetings are more effective than one-time exposure to public-health information provided in a class lecture, magazine article, advertisement, or pamphlet. Education programs tailored to reflect specific ethnic and cultural preferences prove even more effective. For example, the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network creates HIV education programs that fight the common misperception among the indigenous peoples of Canada that AIDS is primarily a disease of white, affluent people. Among indigenous communities, the network promotes programs that use colloquial language to increase awareness about safe sex practices and needle use.