OPINION

AIDS unawareness costs Greece

There’s a joke about a father who says to his teenage son, «Son, I think it’s time we talked about sex.» And the son says, «Sure Dad, what do you want to know?» Teenagers certainly seem to know a lot about sex – at least how to invite it and perform it. But, the big question is: Where are they getting their information from, and how reliable is it? A Greek state school teacher told me of a discussion she recently had with one of her classes about AIDS. She was shocked at how little the children knew about this disease. Aged 16-17, most of the students were either considering or already engaging in sex, yet they seemed to lack rudimentary knowledge about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. One boy asked if he could contract AIDS from having sex with a virgin. A girl admitted to having regular intercourse with her boyfriend without using a condom, because he thinks they are «for sissies.» The entire class did not know the difference between a person with HIV and a person with AIDS. As teenagers continue to be unaware of the dangers of unprotected sex, figures show a steady stream of HIV cases being reported in Greece. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), by the end of 2005, Greek authorities had reported a total of 7,718 HIV cases; they included 2,669 people who developed AIDS, of whom 1,484 had died. For the year 2005 alone, authorities reported 560 new HIV cases, 101 new AIDS cases and 50 AIDS deaths. In other parts of the world, the figures are shocking. In fact, by the time you finish reading this sentence someone in the world will have died of AIDS. According to data published by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) last week, in 2007 alone 33.2 million people were estimated to be living with HIV, 2.5 million became newly infected and 2.1 million people died of AIDS. WHO data show that AIDS has claimed the lives of 25 million people since it was first recognized in 1981. It is the biggest epidemic in the world’s recorded history, though in its most recent report UNAIDS says that global HIV prevalence has leveled off and the number of new infections has fallen – good news that provides little comfort to people suffering from AIDS right now. Today is World AIDS Day and the international community is listening. Movie stars and pop gurus are out in force, holding benefit concerts and spearheading public awareness campaigns. But AIDS is not something we should be thinking about just one day a year. The information about AIDS and other STDs is out there, on the Internet, in journals, in the media, in the medical community. But this does not mean it is available to everyone, nor that people know where and how to look for it. More importantly, this is information that should be delivered in a responsible manner by a specialist. Relevant data and teachers’ accounts show that our approach to sex-related matters in Greece is superficial to say the least. As the UK-based Avert, an international AIDS charity, says: «It’s easy to think that AIDS is something for other people to worry about – gay people, drug users, people who sleep around. This is wrong – all teens, whoever they are, wherever they live need to take the threat of HIV seriously. To be able to protect yourself, you need to know the facts, and know how to avoid becoming infected.» Health Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos last week announced a plan to introduce sex education in Greek schools. He is talking about bringing into schools the discussions that make so many parents cringe. Simply telling teenagers not to have sex is like telling them not to pierce their faces, drink, smoke or skip class; one’s worthy duty but essentially an exercise in futility. Showing them the possible consequences of their behavior is far more effective. I can still remember the look on the faces at my school (a private foreign school in Athens) when our sex education teacher showed us photographs of the effects of certain STDs. Sex was the last thing on everyone’s mind that day. The health minister has also launched a National Action Plan against HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, bringing together experts from the medical community. Both initiatives are long overdue in Greece but welcome key steps in the right direction. What remains to be seen is when they will be implemented and how effectively they will be run. On the level of the individual, 19th century morals have no place in the 21st century. Unless we as a society change our attitudes and shed our lackadaisical approach to matters pertaining to sex, people will continue to pay for their ignorance with their lives.