Undergraduates should be taught about Aids and HIV to increase their awareness of the virus and reduce its chances of spreading, according to a Canadian study.
The research, at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, examined students' sexual behaviour, general knowledge of the virus and their attitudes towards high-risk Aids groups.
Cheryl Fraser, the author of The impact of an undergraduate Aids/HIV education course on students' Aids knowledge, attitudes and risk behaviour, says her study helps prove that courses on Aids can help students to stop seeing the pandemic as someone else's problem.
It may also reduce feelings of physical invulnerability that affect many young people, she says. The most significant change among the sample of more than 500 students was their attitude towards homosexuals. Everyone was interviewed before and after the four-month course.
At the end, 97 per cent of the students reported a greater understanding and acceptance of homosexuality, a significant jump from the 30 per cent figure at the beginning of the course.
Their Aids education included talks from people living with Aids, frank discussions on sexual behaviour, and exercises to try to put members of the mainly-heterosexual classes into the shoes of homosexuals. One exercise called for students to pair off with a member of their sex and walk down the university hallways hand in hand. Another had heterosexuals spending an evening with their regular mate in public where they would have to hide any clues of romantic or emotional involvement.
Dr Fraser, whose study was part of her doctoral dissertation in clinical psychology presented at Simon Fraser a few weeks ago, says she is elated at the enlightened attitudes its produced.
She said the empathy that the students will now feel with high-risk groups helps break down the "self-vs-other" scenarios that lead to low-risk groups increasing their chances of infection.
"If you think it's a problem of others, you won't try to protect yourself," she said. The study's results, however, did not show a significant change in sexual behaviour.
But it did find a change in the sexual risk assessments of the students', most of whom were low-risk candidates for HIV infection.
After the course, many of the participants wrote of new-found awareness, for example they will make sure they get an HIV antibody test at the beginning of a relationship and that condoms will become part of the "date kit".
Dr Fraser says the fact that there is an increased awareness even when having unprotected sex is a triumph.