"Aids? That's soooo 1980s - no one gets that any more." New research out today suggests that attitudes like this have become mainstream among British young people. Sixty per cent of the several thousand 16- to 24-year-olds surveyed believed that unprotected sex did not put them at risk of contracting HIV. Fourteen per cent said that they couldn't catch the infection if they weren't gay. Thirteen per cent said they were "too young" to be affected.
The complacency behind these figures is shocking, and the failure is ours. After the huge public campaigning efforts of the 1980s, we have let a generation of young people grow up ignorant - more than a third say they cannot recall ever seeing an advert on the infection. Aids is perceived as a problem for Africa and the developing world, not the UK. There might be no cure for Aids, but our young people have been allowed to believe that they're immune.
The problem, of course, is that they're not. According to the Department of Health, there are an estimated 73,000 people living with HIV in the UK and one third didn't know they were infected. If the level of ignorance depicted in this new survey is representative, the risk of a major HIV resurgence is real. Complacency is no longer an option. To guard against widespread infection, we need to tackle this issue head on and address the bigger problem of which it is part - a failure to provide decent and proper sex education in our schools.
According to a survey by the British youth parliament, 40% of young people describe their sex education as "poor". Half of the UK's children haven't been taught how to use a condom and 51% don't know where their nearest sexual health clinic is. Another survey by TES magazine last year found that three quarters of teachers don't feel they have been given the training they need to deliver adequate sex education. With a Tory government coming in with a squeamish and judgmental attitude towards sex ed, this problem is likely to get worse.
The familiar argument against sex education is that if you teach young people about these things, you'll encourage them to do it. If that's the case, then we'd better take nuclear physics off the curriculum right now. In every other subject, more education and information is assumed to empower people to make responsible decisions. We need to stop making sex ed the exception. If we don't give our young people the information they need to make responsible choices, we can't blame them for the fall-out - be it teenage pregnancy, emotional turmoil or the contraction of HIV.
We know from the past that awareness campaigns to stop Aids pay off. But our success made us complacent; we thought that our work was done when the truth is it never ends. Once a generation of young people has obtained a good knowledge of physics, music or English we don't just dust off our hands and go home - we move on to the next. We need to do the same thing with Aids awareness. The best way we can do this - and safeguard our nation's sexual health more generally - is to introduce a new, thorough and compulsory system of sex education in our schools.
[Original article can be found here.]