Education more important than knowledge in stopping spread of HIV in Africa

September 8, 2010 by Jeff Grabmeier

Simply teaching people the facts about how to protect themselves from HIV may not be enough to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that villagers in Ghana who had higher levels of cognitive and decision-making abilities - not just the most knowledge -- were the ones who were most likely to take steps to protect themselves from .

These are what people develop through formal , said Ellen Peters, lead author of the study and associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

"Knowledge about HIV and AIDS is important, but greater knowledge is not by itself leading people to take on healthier behaviors," Peters said.

"People really need the education that trains them how to think, to use their knowledge to plan for the future."

This is one of the first studies to show the importance of formal education in helping to prevent the spread of HIV, outside of research done in relatively well-educated Western countries, Peters said.

The study appears online in the journal Psychological Science and will be published in a future print edition.

Rural Ghana is a good place to study the effect of education on because citizens there have nearly equal access to health care and nearly equal levels of wealth, but there are wide differences in education levels, according to Peters and David Baker, co-investigator of the study and professor of education and sociology at Penn State University.

This study involved 181 residents of eastern Ghana who lived in four small, agrarian villages with little migration into or out of villages.

They participated in the study in exchange for a bucket, a bar of soap and a roll of toilet paper.

Participants had an average of 6.6 years of formal education.

The researchers tested villagers' , math skills and decision-making abilities - some of the cognitive skills associated with formal education. They were also given a test of their knowledge about HIV/AIDS and how to protect themselves.

Finally, the researchers scored each participant on how much he or she used behaviors that reduced the risk of getting HIV, such as using condoms.

Results showed that once participants' cognitive and decision-making abilities were taken into account, knowledge about HIV/AIDS no longer predicted whether a person adopted protective behaviors.

"We found that the value of education wasn't so much in teaching facts, but in teaching people how to think," Peters said.

Peters gives an example from the study.

One participant correctly answered a question by saying that HIV can be transmitted by blood transfusions. But when he was asked how he could minimize that risk, he responded by saying he couldn't get HIV from a transfusion if he wore a condom.

"He had some of the right facts," Peters said. "But he was using that knowledge inappropriately, in a way that could ultimately harm him. That's where cognitive and decision-making abilities could have helped him to use the facts to make the better choices."

The results have important implications for fighting in and other parts of the world that have large numbers of uneducated people, Peters said.

About $8.9 billion has been spent on HIV prevention in Ghana and the surrounding region since 2000, primarily through disseminating facts about the disease. But the effectiveness of these programs has never been adequately studied.

"Our findings suggest that those efforts, however well intentioned they may be, may not be sufficient without efforts to help at-risk adults to reason correctly with the facts they have been taught," she said.

"Given that sub-Saharan Africa is home to both the largest unschooled population in the world and the largest HIV-infected population in the world, we need to better understand how to design effective HIV-prevention programs."

Peters noted that, although this study looked specifically at prevention, it is likely that more education could help people in a variety of ways.

"We hope the results of our study will stimulate examination of the costs and benefits of spreading basic education worldwide," she said.

"Education helps people reason flexibly across many different areas of life and make decisions that will help them prepare for the future."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Scientists find where HIV 'hides' to evade detection by the immune system

October 19, 2017
In a decades-long game of hide and seek, scientists from Sydney's Westmead Institute for Medical Research have confirmed for the very first time the specific immune memory T-cells where infectious HIV 'hides' in the human ...

National roll-out of PrEP HIV prevention drug would be cost-effective

October 18, 2017
Providing pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication to men who have sex with men who are at high risk of HIV infection (equivalent to less than 5% of men who have sex with men at any point in time) in England would be cost-effective, ...

Regulatory T cells harbor HIV/SIV virus during antiviral drug treatment

October 17, 2017
Scientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University have identified an additional part of the HIV reservoir, immune cells that survive and harbor the virus despite long-term treatment with antiviral drugs.

New research opens the door to 'functional cure' for HIV

October 17, 2017
In findings that open the door to a completely different approach to curing HIV infections, scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have for the first time shown that a novel compound effectively ...

Researchers create molecule that could 'kick and kill' HIV

October 5, 2017
Current anti-AIDS drugs are highly effective at making HIV undetectable and allowing people with the virus to live longer, healthier lives. The treatments, a class of medications called antiretroviral therapy, also greatly ...

A sixth of new HIV patients in Europe 50 or older: study

September 27, 2017
People aged 50 and older comprise a growing percentage of HIV patients in Europe, accounting for one in six new cases in 2015, researchers said Wednesday.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.