UA Professor Presents Findings At International Aids Conference In South Africa

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The gathering of more than 10,000 global healthcare and community leaders at the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, represents a worldwide interest in addressing and combating the dreadful effects of the disease, which now afflicts more than 35 million people.

And, among the select group of individuals invited to attend this year’s conference is a University of Alabama professor of nursing who will be presenting a unique study that assesses the knowledge and attitudes of kindergarten through fifth grade elementary students towards the virus and people who carry it.

Dr. Susan Gaskins, associate professor in UA’s Capstone College of Nursing, has been working in conjunction with Shannon Beard of Tuscaloosa’s Alberta Elementary School since 1995 on a comprehensive and age-appropriate HIV/AIDS Awareness Education Program. The program has been implemented yearly for K-5 students at the elementary school with the assistance of the Red Cross, an AIDS Service Organization, the Tuscaloosa Health Department, faculty from UA, and parents and student volunteers.

Through the program, students receive factual information about the disease, as well as a message of hope, understanding and compassion for people living with the disease. The information is tailored to the student’s age, level of understanding and maturity level. A variety of teaching strategies are also used in the educational process, including the use of special videos, stories and the creation of a “Living Quilt” as a group art project. The children also participate in the yearly state AIDS conference and in local World AIDS Day activities.

In 1999, the program was evaluated for improvement areas and each participant’s attitude and knowledge was assessed using a pre-test and post-test design. The tests were designed to learn what knowledge students initially had of the virus before starting the program and how that knowledge increased after participation in the project. Also, how students felt about people with AIDS/HIV and their perception of how the virus affected others was gauged.

According to Gaskins, the study shows a significant increase by the children in the level of knowledge, as well as their acceptance and attitudes toward people who carry the virus. “One of our priorities for this educational program was to teach these children at an early age that this disease that they have all heard of is not something that they should fear. We wanted to increase the students’ knowledge about HIV/AIDS and we wanted to increase their understanding and acceptance of people who carry this disease. I think our findings show that this program has thus far been extremely successful,” said Gaskins.

“It is highly important that young people be supplied with the correct information about this disease while they are beginning to form judgments and ideas about those things they see, hear about and learn on a daily basis,” Gaskins continued. “Certainly, AIDS is something many of these children have already heard about. But, instead of them getting the message that it is something horrible and people who have it should be shunned, we are trying to re-tool their thinking. We want them to know that it is something that can be avoided, treatment is being developed, and that they should not avoid or be afraid of people they might know to have the disease. So, our main goal has been to educate, negate wrong information and foster understanding,” she said.

It is fitting that Gaskins’ research findings be accepted to this year’s pivotal AIDS conference. The theme of the conference, titled “Break the Silence,” was presented upon the premise that AIDS has created a new class of leper across the world. Public stigma and discrimination are widespread internationally, and without education and communication, finding a cure for the disease will be more difficult, researchers say.

“Even today in the year 2000 there is too much negative information and a general lack of information throughout the world about this terrible disease,” said Gaskins. “We must make education a priority so that people have the tools to modify their behaviors in order to avoid the disease and to provide a general understanding about the ways it is and is not contracted. Teaching young children is especially beneficial because it will help foster positive attitudes and knowledge as they grow older and this, in turn, will prepare them for making wise decisions and for making the world a better place in which to live.”

Note: Dr. Susan Gaskins will return from Durban, South Africa on Monday, July 17. For more information or to set up an interview, please contact Lance Skelly in the UA Media Relations Office at the contact number above.


Lance M. Skelly, UA Office of Media Relations, 205/348-3782