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Focusing on School Attendance Reduces HIV Risk Among Orphaned Teens

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Science Update

three male teens studying

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A comprehensive school support program effectively reduced risk factors associated with infection with HIV among teens who had lost one or both parents, according to early results from a pilot study funded by NIMH. The paper was published online ahead of print on February 17, 2011, in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Background

Current statistics estimate there are more than 11 million children living in sub-Saharan Africa who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. These children are at increased risk of dropping out of school, which in turn increases their risk for unprotected sexual behavior. Some research suggests that interventions that aim to change a person's living conditions, such as methods designed to help them stay in school, may be effective in reducing or preventing HIV infection among these at-risk children.

To further explore this idea, Hyunsan Cho, Ph.D., of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Chapel Hill, N.C., and colleagues recruited 105 students, ages 12-14, from a rural area in Kenya with high HIV prevalence who had lost one or both parents to any cause. All participants received supportive household supplies (e.g., mosquito nets, blankets, food supplements) every two weeks. Participants randomly assigned to the test group also received school uniforms and money to pay school fees. A local woman, designated as a "community visitor," was assigned for every 10 teens in the test group to visit their homes at least monthly. She also visited the teens' schools weekly to monitor their school attendance and address problems that may lead to absenteeism.

Results

After one year, teens in the test group were less likely to have:

  • Dropped out of school (4 percent vs 12 percent of the control group)
  • Begun having sex (19 percent vs 33 percent control)
  • Reported attitudes supporting initiation of sexual relationships at a young age

Teens in the test group were also more likely to perceive that adults in the family liked or cared about them, and were generally less likely to endorse attitudes accepting of husbands beating their wives.

Significance

According to the researchers, these findings support previous research suggesting that comprehensive, community-based school support can help reduce multiple HIV risk factors among orphaned teens. The researchers also found evidence that school support enhances social bonding and positive attitudes toward gender equity.

What's Next

Given that these findings resulted from an experimental pilot study, the researchers emphasized that future studies should include more participants and focus on methods for generalizing this approach to broader populations.

Reference

Cho H, Hallfors DD, Mbai II, Itindi J, Milimo BW, Halpern CT, Iritani BJ. Keeping adolescent orphans in school to prevent human immunodeficiency virus infection: evidence from a randomized controlled trial in Kenya . J Adolesc Health. 2011 May;48(5):523-6. Epub 2011 Feb 18. PubMed PMID: 21501814; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3079907.