Strong Turnout at Historically Black High School for AIDS Testing

MONTGOMERY, Ala.

Organizers of the state’s first school screening for AIDS and HIV were impressed by the number of students volunteering for the test at a Birmingham high school.

“We were surprised by the turnout,” said Donald Smith, chairman of Birmingham’s AIDS Task Force, which organized last week’s testing at Wenonah High School. “But this is just so important, to get this education, and testing, started early.”

Wenonah High School is historically Black, making HIV and AIDS education particularly important to its students, Smith said.

In 2004, 70 percent of all new AIDS diagnoses in Alabama occurred in Blacks, and 63 percent of people living with AIDS were Black.

These statistics show it is crucial to provide teens with HIV information, Smith said.

Alabama law requires that at least one hour of HIV and AIDS information be presented to students in grades 5 through 12 each year. Smith said that he first approached Birmingham city schools officials to help implement this law, and worked especially with Wenonah High School to develop a more integrated program.

The school’s student body does not face particular risk, past those facing all members of Black community, said Tony Morris, executive director of AIDS in Minorities, the group that administered the test. He said that a stigma associated with a particular school or race can undo the good of a program that aims to educate, not isolate, people.

“Every Black person is not at special risk for HIV…and although it is important for everyone to know their status, (it is) especially for those in the African-American community,” Morris said.

AIDS Alabama education director Kimberly Foster said similar school programs are being carried out at schools with varying demographics and risk factors.

For example, eight students at Fairfield High School were trained to be peer educators, often talking to classmates about HIV and AIDS.

“(The risk) there is not as high as in some communities in the city but some of the students are at risk (for HIV or AIDS),” Foster said. She said that so far, their program has been successful.

Smith also considers the program at Wenonah to be a success.

Starting last year, students at Wenonah have attended lectures about the HIV and AIDS, and disease information has been presented in science and health classes. Teachers also polled students to see if they knew anyone with HIV or AIDS, either living or dead. Approximately 25 percent did.

“So they know what we’re dealing with here,” Smith said. “They were very receptive to the education and information, and took it seriously.”

In the previous week, students took home a parental consent form for the testing, although Alabama allows any child 12 and over to be tested without a parent’s permission.

“But we included the parents, which helps with the success of this program. They’ve been involved since the beginning,” Morris said.

Test results should be back within a week. Counseling will be immediately available for anyone who tests positive for the disease.

— Associated Press



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