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Student AIDS outreach
While many of his peers were wondering where exactly their next class was located on the sprawling campus last fall, first year science undergraduate Aaron Levenstadt was busy starting up the student-led McGill Global AIDS Coalition.
Levenstadt attended the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona last spring on behalf of MGAC and did a presentation about the group's aims. Stephen Lewis, Special HIV-AIDS Envoy for the UN, and some of his colleagues were so impressed that Levenstadt was invited to join the UN's Special Assembly on HIV-AIDS as a Canadian youth representative.
In its first year, the AIDS education group raised financial backing from corporations and individuals and organized a peer education trip to the South American town of Bartica, Guyana, in partnership with Ve'ahavta, a Toronto-based Jewish humanitarian organization. Guyana has the second highest HIV rate in the Western hemisphere.
Five MGAC representatives spent two weeks in August in Bartica, population 5,000, to learn how best to do peer education in that community. They spent the first week speaking to store owners, hospital staff, youth and other members of the community. They also worked with the Lion's Club and the Hope Foundation in Bartica and met with teenagers from The Hope Foundation's Youth Leadership Program. Affiliating with those groups made it easier for MGAC to be accepted into the community, says Katie McCagherty, a second year undergraduate in International Development Studies.
The McGill students were led by Anat Geva, a psychologist from the University of Michigan, and Dorith Geva, a doctoral candidate in sociology from NYU. "When we talked to people," says Anat Geva, "it wasn't clear that everyone knew the facts about HIV and AIDS. Regardless of what people knew it was apparent that people were not acting in a sexually safe way. There was also resistance to using condoms but we weren't sure why."
The students also had to deal with ambivalence towards them as North Americans. Anat Geva feels this was part of the learning experience for them. "On one hand, there's admiration for anything North American and a belief that it's so much better there. And then, on the other hand, you get people who say America is the root of all of our problems. Some were happy we were there and others felt, 'Why is it that white people always think that they know better than we do?'"
Some attitudes toward North America came as a shock to the students. McCagherty says that many in Bartica "believe that AIDS was made in a USA laboratory in order to wipe out members of the third world." At the same time, some people also believe that America already has a cure for AIDS and is not sharing it with developing countries.
Dr. Michael Silverman, a University of Toronto expert in infectious disease and a consultant to MGAC, is well aware of these tensions, having worked with the community for seven years. "There are a lot of North Americans and Europeans who've come into these areas with their own agenda that doesn't take into consideration what the local people need or want. They then take off and never come back. Most of the communities in the developing world have been touched by some sort of 'humanitarian tourists.'"
The group spent the second week conducting a 70-question survey. They also designed and handed out pamphlets to inform the people of Bartica about HIV and how it is transmitted. The team surveyed about 200 members of the community, ranging from 13 to 55 years old.
MGAC president Allyson Ion, second year undergraduate in microbiology and immunology, feels she influenced one man in Bartica, through a conversation. He didn't know that a person could have HIV for 10 years before exhibiting symptoms and all the while be infecting others. "He was so happy to get that information. He said, I'm going to tell everyone what you just told me because that's important to know."
Ion was impressed by a Bartica street theatre performance. "It drew a huge crowd and was really neat - people were actually listening because of the method. It wasn't just people standing up there lecturing the audience. It was interactive." She believes MGAC could use this type of educational tool as well.
Bartica is a very religious, predominantly Christian community. The values of the church run deeply and the group encountered the same arguments used in North America by those opposed to teaching teens about condom use. "Older members of the community say their youth are not sexually active and if we teach them about condoms that will make them sexually active," says Anat Geva. "You want the churches to work with you, but at the same time they're not necessarily going to support a program that doesn't teach only abstinence."
MGAC's research discovered that people did not want to get condoms from the hospital or the town's pharmacist. "People are wary of going into a hospital because it is a small community and there is a lot of gossip. They call it 'The Talk' - people talk behind their backs about who has AIDS, who is having sex." Geva says people in Bartica, especially youth, are very interested in getting condoms so long as they can do so without everyone knowing about it.
Ion says MGAC hopes to increase condom usage in the town. "Because of the stigma attached to purchasing condoms, we're hoping to put condom dispensers in entertainment establishments in Bartica. If you put them in hotels, restaurants or bars, it's easier to get a condom anonymously."
MGAC is growing. The group attracted 200 new members on Activities Night this year. Levenstadt says at the International AIDS Conference, researchers presented studies suggesting that "students dealing with AIDS were more willing to talk to other students [than to older people]." He adds, "We'd like to set up a student-to-student educational program with developed and developing world communities."
Dr. Silverman understands why these McGill students would want to devote their time to peer education. "It's their peers around the world that are getting infected and dying."