Children rely on TV for Aids education

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CHILDREN are learning about Aids and HIV from television and radio rather than their parents and teachers, with the result that their knowledge is 'patchy' and 'punctuated by worry'.

A survey by Barnados, the children's charity, has highlighted ignorance and anxiety about the illness. Although some of the children were hearing about HIV/Aids as young as eight, a quarter still did not know how it was spread by the time they went to secondary school. More than a quarter of 11-year-olds did not know how someone could protect themselves from infection.

Many of the children interviewed thought it was 'other people' only who were at risk - 'druggies, poofters, junkies and prostitutes' - and that HIV did not have any real significance for their lives. Ten of the children thought pop stars were at particular risk.

One in five of the children said they would treat an HIV positive classmate 'differently', mostly by avoiding social contact with them. The 11-year-olds were more supportive but 90 per cent of 13-year- olds would treat infected classmates 'negatively', they said.

'I would just talk to him but I would not touch him', and 'I'd be nice to them but I would not share my food with them', were some typical comments.

Condom knowledge grew with age; 34 per cent of 11-year-olds named condoms as the main way to stop HIV transmission, compared with 68 per cent of 13-year- olds.

More than 500 boys and girls aged 11 to 13 were interviewed in May at 26 different locations across the country. Some parents, particularly in the North-west, denied interview permission because they said their child knew nothing about HIV/Aids, according to Barnados. But only 2 per cent of those who were asked if they had heard of the virus and the disease answered 'no'.

Seventy per cent of 11-year-olds said they turned to television programmes - such as'EastEnders' - to find out about Aids. Only 10 per cent said they heard about it from parents or during school lessons. More than half of the children said they were worried by Aids; one in 10 said they were 'very worried'.

The results of the survey, Who's Telling the Children?, will add to the pressure on ministers to strengthen sex education in schools. The British Medical Association earlier this week called for compulsory lessons from the age of seven. Barnado's is also calling for a comprehensive health education programme in schools.

Roger Singleton, senior director of the charity, said: 'We owe it to children to tell them about the life and death choices they will have to make before they are at risk.'

Barnados said that teachers and parents had a key role in building on the existing awareness of Aids/HIV among children. The charity warns that 'passive acceptance of media-led messages, even if positive, is unlikely to change behaviour'.

The results of the survey will be presented at a one-day conference on HIV awareness in London next week.

Who's Telling the Children? is available free of charge from Barnados, Tanners Lane, Barkingside, Ilford Essex IG6 1QG.