AIDS – it has created widespread panic and hysteria – the public is alarmed – schools are scrambling for materials to teach children about the disease. Right?

Wrong.  If a recent showing of videos by the Toronto Board of Education is any indication, neither parents nor teachers are very interested in the subject at all.  In a meeting billed as a preview of videotapes on AIDS available to teachers in the Toronto school district, only one teacher showed up, and six parents (two of them husband and wife).

The three videos were produced by the Ontario Ministry of Health through its Public Education Panel on AIDS.  Two are factual presentations and one is emotional, centering on the feelings of a young man’s family as he nears death from AIDS.

The curriculum for teaching children about AIDS is being developed and will be ready by September.  In the meantime, the Toronto Board if offering these videos to teachers who wish to introduce the topic into their classrooms.

Judging by the preview showing, not many do.

But that doesn’t stop the Toronto Board.  If the teachers won’t go to them, they will go to the teachers.  And their next step, according to Dr. Ouida Wright, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Programme, who hosted the preview showing, was to show the videos to health and physical education teachers on a professional activity day in March.

What are the three videos about?

The first, AIDS – the facts and the future (23 mins.) is factual, explaining how AIDS attacks the immune system, how it is transmitted, and so on.  Unfortunately, the video is a year-and-a-half old, and, as Dr. Wright admitted, most of the information it contains is already out-of-date.  A revision is in the works, she said, although she could not say when it would be ready.  In the meantime, any teacher who uses the video will be giving students sadly out-dated information.

For instance, the video presents AIDS as a disease almost solely as ‘restricted to homosexual or bisexual males and intravenous drug users.’  As long as you do not engage in these high-risk activities, the film suggests, you will not contract AIDS.

But, the fact is, AIDS is spreading increasingly rapidly among the general population in North America.  Medical World News (November 24, 1986), reports that heterosexual AIDS is doubling every six months.  Moreover, six per cent of the people who have AIDS now do not fall into any of the known risk categories.  Yet, the video ends by saying, “AIDS is not a highly contagious disease, and its spread can be easily prevents.”

False claims

The AIDS virus, the video insists, is very fragile outside the human body, so the chances of transmission are very small.  This claim, too, is now known to be false.  Both the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the U.S. Institutes of Health report that the virus has survived and remained infectious outside the human body for 10 to 15 days at room temperature, even when dried out in a petri dish (which means it can “live” on household surfaces).  It stayed infectious even longer when kept in a watery solution.

People who live with AIDS victims, the video claims, are at no greater risk than others of contracting the disease.  A study done in Zaire, Africa, showed that persons living in the same household as an AIDS patient have a 300 per cent higher risk of becoming infected than the general population.

Sex is sacrosanct

Even while telling the public there is little cause for concern, the medical profession itself acts differently.  When Rock Hudson was treated for AIDS at the Pasteur Clinic, he was fed on paper plates, with plastic forks and spoons, which were afterwards destroyed.  When he was discharged, all the nurses who attended him were made to burn their dresses.  All linen he touched was likewise destroyed.

The video subtly underplays the danger of AIDS throughout.  Narrator, David Susuki, concludes, “If you think either your or your partner might have been exposed to the AIDS virus, have safer sex.  Use condoms during intercourse.”  As advice, this is laughably simplistic.  The saying we hear now is that when you go to bed with someone, you are going to bed with all the sex partners that person has had over the last ten years or so.  How is a person to know whether his or her “partner” has been exposed to the AIDS virus within the last ten years?  How would he even know it about himself?  A person can be infected, and infectious to others, without showing any symptoms for seven to ten years.

It is highly misleading to suggest that as long as you use a condom you are relatively safe.  The stark fact is that condoms have never even been considered a reliable form of birth control (see March Interim, “The Condom Crusade, Part II,” for information on how ineffective condoms may prove to be in preventing AIDS transmission).   To its credit, at least the script doesn’t promise “safe sex,” only “safer sex.”

What is woefully lacking in the video is any attempt to teach young people basic refusal skills.  We do it all the time in teaching them to resist drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and abuse, but somehow sex is still sacrosanct.  No one dares to tell a teen simply to say “No.”

The video finds it easy to say “don’t abuse intravenous drugs,” but can’t bring itself to say, don’t have gay or promiscuous sex.”  The strongest statement it can come up with is “to reduce the risk of AIDS, avoid risky activities.”  And, “don’t allow the blood or semen from someone infected with AIDS to get into your body.”  If a 10-year-old can figure out what kinds of activities that means in practice, I’ll eat my condom.

Babies and AIDS

Since AIDS can also be transmitted through pregnancy to an unborn child, the video goes on to urge women who know they have been exposed to the virus to “talk to their doctors before planning a pregnancy, or as early as possible after becoming pregnant.”  Is this a not too subtle suggestion that for women already pregnant abortion may be the proper course?

The video concludes that risks are involved in many of the activities we engage in – activities that are themselves “fun, enjoyable, good for you.”  The fact that there are risks “doesn’t mean we should stop doing the things we enjoy; it just means we should be sensible and take precautions.”

Throughout North America, AIDS is transmitted primarily through homosexual or promiscuous intercourse and intravenous drug use.  The video appears to be alluding to these as those nice, enjoyable activities we need not give up.

Dreary probing

The second video previewed by the Toronto Board was The Immune System and AIDS (10 mins.), made for science classes.  This is information with good visual effects.  It draws on effective analogy between the functions of various blood cells and the functions of different branches and ranks of the military, visually represented by pieces of a chess set.

Unfortunately, this video does not take a strong stand against promiscuous sexual relations and intravenous drug abuse.  It is, however, the best of the three videos the Board has available.

The same cannot be said of the third video shown. AIDS – A Family Experience (35 mins.), a series of interviews with a homosexual and his family after he had contracted AIDS and comes home to die.  It is a long and dreary probing into the feelings of everyone in the family.  Fortunately, some balance is brought by the young man’s brother, who says, “He’s paying the price for an act he should never have performed.”

Why schools need a film on how a family faces the death of one of its members by AIDS is a mystery to me.  Every day thousands of parents face the death of a child through illness, traffic accidents, falls and poisonings.  The number of parents who face the death of their children through AIDS is comparatively minute.  Why do we need to highlight this one group, and imply that their plight is somehow more to be pities than the thousands of other bereaved parents?

The purpose of the video seems to be to remind us that AIDS victims are people like the rest of us, and that we should fight the disease, not the people who have it.  That is true only to a point.  In reality we are fighting both a disease and a certain kind of behaviour.

Facing death

AIDS – A Family Experience, divides its focus among three themes, AIDS, homosexuality and death, and as a result treats none of them well.  In fact, most of the actual film time is spend not on AIDS per se, but on the problems of facing death.  Moreover, death is treated from a completely secular perspective; although religions all around the world hold to the existence of an afterlife, the concept is never mentioned.  At one point, the AIDS sufferer does speak about the universal longing for immortality, but immediately dismisses it.  Death is treated as absolutely final.  If shown in the classroom, this film may undercut the spiritual beliefs of the children seeing it.  Needless to say, schools should not be in the business of undermining children’s religious beliefs.

Since the young man dying from AIDS and his family are all adults, it is difficult to see how the film could be appropriate for school children anyway.  Moreover, the process of dying is presented in fairly positive terms, as he and his family work through their anger and sense of futility and finally accept the inevitable.  If our purpose is to warn young people that AIDS is indeed fatal (and that should be our purpose), it would be better to highlight the ugly, painful side of what it means to die from AIDS.  Both AIDS and the diseases likely to accompany it are wrenching and debilitating.  A good look at people suffering from them can have the same affect that showing accident victims has on youngsters in driver education.

Authority figures

If you are a teacher or a parent, I urge you to review carefully any material used in your school for teaching children about AIDS.  Keep in mind that outdated or distorted information dispensed by a teacher can do far more harm than anything a youngster might pick up from friends or the street.  What is gleaned from peers is taken with a grain of salt, but information received in school, from an authority figure such as a teacher, is presumed to be correct.

The basic facts

What should school children be taught about AIDS?  Certainly they should be given the basic facts of how the AIDS virus affects the human body, and the facts of how it is transmitted.  Most of us are smart enough to draw the appropriate conclusions once we are frankly presented with the facts.  It’s happening with smoking – schools have made a point of teaching the facts about the harm of cigarette smoking, and consequently we have seen a decrease in the rate of smoking among young people.

Kids need honest adults, not ones who cover up the risks of AIDS with a reassuring smile and a handy condom.  Research is uncovering new facts about AIDS at a very rapid rate, and most of these facts show that AIDS is more dangerous, more contagious, more difficult to control than hitherto suspected.  We don’t need to use scare tactics; the facts, presented in a low-key and matter-of-fact way, are enough.

Taking a stand

AIDS may also force a change in school’s approach to sexual morality.  Even the “sex experts” are trying themselves up into almost comical contortions trying to undo the damage they have done like Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, who intones, “Remember, no casual sex ever again.”  For a long time the schools have been so frightened of appearing “judgmental” that they haven’t even given students the straight facts on things like the seriousness of sexually-transmitted diseases.  They didn’t like the term “venereal disease,” so they changed it so “sexually transmitted disease” (and even so, usually refer to it by the initials STD).  The didn’t like the word “promiscuous,” so they changed it to “sexually active,” which sounds actually positive and makes no distinction between people who are monogamous and people who are not, between people who are married and people who are not.  Then they transformed homosexuality from a sin to a sickness to an alternative lifestyle.  Now here come incurable diseases like herpes and much more devastating, AIDS, and the schools find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to take a stand, for a change, on sexual morality.

Courting disaster

In the long run, of course, education is not the answer to the AIDS epidemic.  Children are not the ones spreading AIDS; homosexuals and drug abusers are.  Given the realities of homosexual practice, it is both simplistic and utterly hypocritical to go into schools and tell kids to use condoms – but to leave homosexual – bathhouses open, along with homosexual bars, clubs, cruises, resort areas, “escort” services and apartment houses.

Let’s face it, if we’re counting on education to stop AIDS, we’re courting disaster.  AIDS is too deadly and is spreading too quickly.  If we don’t act now to put a restraint on those portions of the population where AIDS is already rampant, then by the time today’s ten-year-olds get to the age where the information learned in school might have some application for them, half the nation will have already died of the disease.