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Kenyan Discusses Initiative to Address Epidemic of HIV
Mabel Imbuga, professor of biochemistry and dean of science at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi, hopes that an alliance between East African universities and AAAS will help curb the spread of AIDS in a region that has been devastated by the disease.
"At some universities, it's not uncommon to lose two students and staff members each week to HIV/AIDS," said Imbuga, during a recent visit to Washington, D.C. "At some universities, 50 percent of the staff and students are infected."
As chair of African Women in Science and Engineering, Imbuga has been working with AAAS staff on a two-year initiative, Women in Higher Education and Science: African Universities Responding to HIV/AIDS. The initiative began with a U.S. study tour that allowed East African scholars to familiarize themselves with science education models. The program has expanded to become a significant alliance between East African universities and AAAS with an important goal—to use university-level classes to teach young people in East Africa about HIV prevention, while giving them a sense of the political and economic implications of the disease.
"The idea is to improve the learning of science," says Alan H. Bornbusch, director of the Africa Program. "Just as important is to get students to engage civically and responsibly with the issues of HIV/AIDS."
Universities are at the forefront in dispersing facts about a disease about which many faculty and students have only a marginal understanding. With few exceptions, governmental agencies and leaders in African nations have not been active in discussing HIV, what it is and how to curb the epidemic. But, as Bornbusch points out, the core mission of universities is education. With the courses developed by this initiative, he says, "the universities can produce AIDS-competent graduates who will engage personally with HIV/AIDS, leading their nations to do the same in an informed, responsible way."
Imbuga plans to encourage East African universities to require all students to take the HIV courses, with graduation dependent on a passing grade. The courses should be taught in the students' first few semesters, when they are more susceptible to new information, Imbuga says. This is a crucial time for the students, she adds, as many are leaving home or boarding schools for the first time and have unprecedented freedom. Away from their parents' influence, they have more freedom to explore and thus are more vulnerable to behaviors that can place them at risk for infection.
Beyond the immediate knowledge gained from the classes, Imbuga hopes that students will begin to feel comfortable talking about HIV/AIDS issues, and will take the knowledge back to their homes, especially to the women in their communities. In African nations, women's leadership is essential in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS. A higher percentage of women are infected with the virus than men, and women make up a greater part of the population. They must learn to protect themselves, Imbuga insists. "This is one war that women can take part in."
20 August 2002