Every day in South Africa, about 25 teachers die from conditions relating to HIV—a crisis in the making that could deplete the country’s education system and cripple its next generation.
Cambodia, with the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in Asia, is determined not to let the same thing happen.
AIDS “will not destroy the country’s teaching force,” the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports vowed in a recent news release.
Cambodia’s teaching population has already been depleted by the past 30 years of conflict and instability, starting with the killing of teachers during the Khmer Rouge regime.
The ministry embarked two years ago on an initiative to train teachers in HIV/AIDS prevention in 28 teacher training schools around the country, said Kim Sanh, the ministry’s HIV/AIDS program officer.
The Education Sector Support Program, which will implement the ministry’s programs during its five-year strategic HIV/AIDS plan, held a workshop last week to discuss the policy.
“It is recognized that future education sector planning will need to take increasing account of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Cambodia. International experience shows that without early action, the education service can be badly hit by the AIDS infection,” a ministry news release stated.
Once teachers are informed about the disease, they can pass their knowledge to their students, Kim Sanh said. HIV/ AIDS education materials have also been incorporated into new school textbooks.
Sek Theara, 18, a Phnom Penh high school student, said he is learning about health issues and the problem of HIV in school, but admitted many students still have unsafe sex.
“I am happy that this disease is put in school textbooks so all students can learn about it and understand it,” he said.
How many Cambodian teachers are infected is not known, but an estimated 2.8 percent of adults in the country are HIV-positive.
“If you extrapolate that rate to the teacher population, it translates into significant numbers,” said Geoff Manthey, program adviser for UNAIDS.
“Teachers are a group that can be missed because of the focus on students. But they have disposable income, they have opportunities for unsafe behavior. They are at risk from my perspective,” he added.
In addition to international aid the government already receives, the ministry will spend some of its own money on the HIV/AIDS education effort—about $250,000 in the 2002 education budget, said Im Sethy, chair of the ministry’s HIV/AIDS task force.
Tia Phalla, general director for the National AIDS Authority, speculated that teachers might have a lower incidence of AIDS than the general population because they are well-educated.
“We can’t say what percentage for sure, but they are not like sex workers, beer girls, police and soldiers,” he said.
On the other hand, he suggested they have additional opportunities to contract the disease because they often travel far away for examinations and make enough money to visit brothels.
Teachers in Takeo province said they are emphasizing the dangers of HIV to their students.
“In many villages here, more people are dying of AIDS and villagers are advising their children to avoid it,” one teacher said. “Right now, when the HIV issue is being put into textbooks, it can help people avoid it.”