ATLANTA - Even though nearly all American teen-agers have received some instruction about preventing AIDS, more should be done through programs that reach them in small groups outside of school, a new federal report says.
Counseling, testing and medical care should be designed specifically to appeal to young people, concludes a study released in Atlanta on Monday by the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. It points to a trend in recent years in which half of the 40,000 people who become infected with the deadly virus are between the ages of 13 and 24.
That trend frustrates many of the 3,000 activists meeting in Atlanta this week for the nation's largest conference on the disease. It's especially troubling in light of government surveys of high schoolers showing more than 90 percent have been taught about HIV and AIDS in class and that a growing portion of them - 58 percent in 1999 - say they used a condom the last time they had intercourse.
The existing approach, though, doesn't appear to have done the job completely.
"I'm not sure why it hasn't been more effective," said Melissa Beaupierre, program administrator for prevention in the Bureau of HIV/AIDS in the Florida Department of Health.
Perhaps, she guessed, young people don't feel threatened personally in light of today's treatments that can keep HIV patients alive for 20 years or more.
The Florida Department of Health, and its counterparts in Georgia and other states, uses federal funds in what are called community-based programs - those operated by charities and government agencies separate from schools.
Sandra Thurman, director of the White House AIDS office, said community-based programs have an advantage because they aren't subject to the varied opinions local school-board members hold on sex education.
She said research shows that students who are educated about sex postpone their own initiation or curtail their activity if they already are experimenting. But many members of school boards, she said, think exposure to the information will trigger dangerous student curiosity.
Abstinence should be the primary lesson of these programs, Ms. Thurman said, but details on safe sex also should be included.
The White House report also called for more study and more funding of prevention programs. For example, questions remain about the effects of medical treatments for HIV on physically developing bodies.
Congress added $250 million to this year's budget for AIDS prevention programs, bringing the total to $1.05 billion. President Clinton will ask for additional funding when he prepares his budget request for the next president, Ms. Thurman said.
Young people at the highest risk for HIV infection need extra attention, according to the report. Besides suffering from poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia, many of them have dropped out of school, lack health care and are exploited by adults.
Mentors, discussions in small groups and individualized counseling are needed for the young people facing the biggest risks, the report states.
The entire report, Youth and HIV/AIDS 2000: A New American Agenda, is available at www.whitehouse.gov.
Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.
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