Strategies to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS among young people could be more effective I some areas if they tapped into the power of religious belief and practice, a new study claims.
Researchers in Guyana made the comments after studying the knowledge and attitudes of young people in relation to HIV/AIDS and sexual behaviour. The research was sponsored by UNICEF and conducted by the local Varqa Foundation.
The study suggested that young people who knew and followed the teaching of their religion were much less likely to have been exposed sexually transmitted disease than those who did not, by a rate of 18 percent to 45 percent respectively.
"Prevention strategies for the spread of HIV/AIDS should harness religious belief and practice, especially in societies such as Guyana where religious affiliation remains strong," declared the study's authors in an article published in the last issue of the International Journal of STD and AIDS.
Guyana has the third highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, which is in turn the second-most affected region in the world.
"Many specialists working in international development are somewhat uncomfortable with faith-based efforts at personal and community transformation… to prevent HIV-AIDS," Brian O'Toole, the lead author of the study, said in an interview.
"But this study suggests that in a country like Guyana, where many people have strong ... beliefs, it might be possible to draw on spiritual inspiration to address some of the problems facing society," said Dr. O'Toole, director of the Varqa Foundation, a Baha'i-inspired social and economic development agency based in Guyana.
Other authors included Roy McConkey, a professor in the health promotion group at the Institute of Nursing Research at the University of Ulster; Karen Casson, also of the University of Ulster; Debbie Goetz-Goldberg, a researcher with Health for Humanity; and Arash Yazdani, a youth volunteer.
More than 2,000 people aged 12-20 were surveyed. They completed anonymous, self-reporting questionnaires about sexual behaviour, their understanding of HIV/AIDS and the way it spreads, and attitudes towards issues like virginity and condom use.
Ninety-five percent of respondents were aware that HIV could be contracted from sexual contact with someone who was HIV positive. However, less than a third (29.5 percent) were able to state up to three other ways that HIV could spread and only 37 percent were able to name three ways of self-protection.
The survey also found that in Guyana, nearly 25 percent of young people aged 12-14 were sexually active, a percentage that rose to more than 33 percent for those 15 and older. Nearly half of the males over the age of 15 were sexually active, according to the survey.
Respondents were asked if they were aware of their religion's teaching on sexual matters and whether they followed it. Just over 35 percent of the young people said they did, with another 22 percent knowing the teaching but not following it.
The authors also concluded that peer education should be another element in any strategy of HIV/AIDS prevention.
"The content and delivery of educational inputs must be capable of being adapted to local contexts preferably by persons who are very familiar with those situations," wrote the authors. "In this respect, peer education would appear to offer some promise."
In Guyana, about 50 percent of the population is Christian, 35 percent is Hindu, 10 percent is Muslim. The remaining five percent of the people belong to other religions or life-stances.