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Peer education discourages misinformation about HIV/AIDS

© UNICEF Armenia/2005/Krikorian
Young peer educators attending a regular training session at secondary school No.43 in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.

By Onnik Krikorian

YEREVAN, April 2005 - Any visitor to School No. 43 in the Armenian capital might easily mistake Veronica Seropyan for a teacher. Yet, standing in front of thirteen pupils aged between fourteen and sixteen, there is something different about her class. The ubiquitous red ribbons that adorn the children’s t-shirts perhaps provide the best clue.

Seropyan isn’t a teacher but a member of AIDS Prevention, Education and Care (APEC) an organization that UNICEF is supporting in its efforts to train 1,400 schoolchildren as peer educators by May 2005.

“We talk about the history of the disease,” says Seropyan, “and how it is spread, what effect it has on the immune system as well as the biological and psychological development of teenagers. Later, they will pass on that knowledge by talking with their friends and classmates.”

© UNICEF Armenia/2005/Krikorian
Veronica Seropyan with a young peer educator learning how to communicate information on HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

Peer education is effective in reaching a group that might otherwise not listen to someone older or from a different social background. In the summer, 120 of the most promising educators will attend a summer camp to expand their knowledge still further.

The number of people infected with HIV/AIDS in Armenia is growing. Last December, the United Nations warned that the republic faces a "potential disaster" if nothing is done to stop the spread of the disease.

And while only 56 of 304 officially registered cases of HIV/AIDS in Armenia were aged less than 24, surveys of young people, and especially students, indicates that although there is a high level of understanding regarding the importance of practicing safer sex, behavior can be just the opposite.

UNICEF is also supporting a pilot project implemented by APEC in Armenia’s southern Syunik region in 2001 to raise awareness of the danger of HIV/AIDS and drug abuse. The project began with discussions with school principals and local authorities and a survey of the region’s youth, which delivered alarming results.

© UNICEF Armenia/2005/Krikorian
Veronica Seropyan (left) from the UNICEF-supported Armenian AIDS Prevention, Education and Care explaining HIV/AIDS transmission to teenagers.

While respondents recognized the dangers of HIV/AIDS, very few were familiar with preventive measures. Instead, most teenagers received their information from unreliable sources such as films or from friends who lacked understanding of the disease.

Although the initial reason for engaging in AIDS education was to prevent new infections from occurring, there was also the need to reduce the stigma and discrimination that is often associated to any mention of the disease.

“The reality is that HIV/AIDS affects everyone,” said Emil Sahakyan, UNICEF’s Information and Communication Officer. “But, because many people think that it will not affect them, they don’t take precautions. At the same time, informing people in the wrong way creates fear, stigma and discrimination.”

On World AIDS day in 2003, UNICEF funded APEC’s campaign to raise awareness and promote tolerance through the mass media.

Last year UNICEF also funded a summer school organized by APEC to train peer educators. Ninety-six students including 60 from secondary schools in the Armenian capital were involved. Participants received up-to-date information, booklets and leaflets and were awarded certificates at the end of six training sessions.



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