Teaching prevention of AIDS

September 04, 1994|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

Heads bent over desks, expressions intent, about 25 college students are discussing negotiating skills. They're talking about diplomacy. Balance of power. Tactics. Assertion.

This isn't International Relations 101. This is about relations of an entirely different sort. The topic for discussion is: If you choose to have sex, how do you persuade a sexual partner to use a condom?

These University of Maryland Baltimore County students are learning how to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including the virus that causes AIDS. Participants in the university's peer counseling program, their mission is to inform other students.

This week, as UMBC students return to the Catonsville campus, the counselors will begin lecturing in classes, holding rap sessions in dorms and having informal conversations about safe sex and other healthy behavior wherever they can.

Peer counseling programs like this one are among the myriad methods used by Maryland universities and colleges to provide students with information about preventing sexually transmitted diseases.

And, because capturing the attention of thousands of busy college students is no easy task, the programs range from bingo played with condoms to anonymous HIV testing, and from celebrity speakers to quiz games.

Though 36 of the 54 institutions in Maryland have some kind of HIV/AIDS prevention program, there is still reason to be concerned, health professionals say. Two-thirds of the estimated million new cases of sexually transmitted infections annually in the United States occur among men and women under the age of 25, according to a survey done by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Almost 20 percent of the nearly 4,000 Marylanders who have full-blown acquired immune deficiency syndrome are under age 30, according to the state AIDS Administration. Another 45 percent are under 39. Usually, 10 to 12 years pass between infection with the human immunodeficiency virus and diagnosis of the full-blown disease, says Antoinette Coward, coordinator of the division of youth outreach at the AIDS Administration.

Young adults "may have information and knowledge about HIV, but we don't see that translating into changed behavior. There is still a lot of risky behavior going on," she says.

The goal of campus health efforts is to arm students with accurate information and to convince them they have a personal stake in safe behaviors, says Sonya Fleming, of the AIDS Administration, who works with local universities to set up HIV prevention programs.

But it isn't easy commanding the attention of young adults. "You entice them to programs," she says. "Try a 'safe sex party.' Entice them with something free. Give away refrigerator magnets or pencils. Anything.

"But you say you're giving a talk on HIV/AIDS, and I guarantee you will be sitting in that room alone," she says.

Make it fun is the first rule of attracting students to preventive health programs. At Coppin State College, students are invited to a "happy hour," says Linda Dark, coordinator of the health promotions office. But instead of alcoholic drinks, participants get sodas and a quiz.

"To get a drink they have to take a quiz on alcohol or drug abuse, or HIV prevention. It really seems to work; it sparks discussion," Ms. Dark says.

Convenience is rule No. 2.

For example, at the Johns Hopkins University this fall, condom machines are to be placed in every dorm. Just having a few machines in central buildings such as the library isn't enough, says student body President Jamie Eldridge.

Last year, the university began offering anonymous testing for HIV and counseling, he says. Other institutions, such as Towson State University and University of Maryland College Park, have offered anonymous HIV counseling and testing for several years.

At the College of Notre Dame, a Catholic institution, peer counselors help distribute information about safe sex, but not condoms, says Claire Bender, director of student health and wellness.

The 10 peer counselors at Notre Dame, who attended the UMBC training session, help students build self-esteem and develop good decision-making skills, she says. "We talk about how to make choices and what choices will work for you," she says.

Despite the light-hearted nature of some of the prevention programs, the issues involved with changing students' behavior from risky to healthy are numerous and complicated. And the stakes are high.

"Sex is easy to do but it is very hard to talk about," says Lynne Weise, assistant director for student health and leader of the peer counseling training session at UMBC.

The students she is training to be counselors concur.

Bring up the subject of condoms on a date and women think you're too aggressive, says Kevin Mahoney, a 21-year-old math major at UMBC.

"I feel like the person might not think you're trusting them. A lot of people are on birth control; if you use a condom it's like saying, 'Hey, you're going to give me some disease,' " he adds.

Perhaps, but dealing with issues related to sex is harder for women, says Angela Ablorh, a UMBC sophomore.

For example, she says, many women would like to be honest with a partner about their sexual histories but fear they will be gossiped about.

"What I notice is a lot of your business gets around. You tell someone who you've been with and it's all over campus," Ms. Ablorh says.

"It's really sad," says Laurianne Brown, a sophomore. "Both men and women feel fear of rejection if they insist on condoms."

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