Education – not knowledge – will stop the spread of HIV

| November 3, 2010

The cognitive abilities that people develop as a result of formal education are the most effective protection against the spread of HIV.

This is the key finding of a study conducted at Ohio and Penn State universities in conjunction with Decision Research in Eugene, Oregon, and the University of Oregon USA.

Says lead researcher Professor Ellen Peters: “Knowledge about HIV and Aids is important, but is not by itself leading people to take on healthier behaviours. People really need the education that trains them how to think, to use their knowledge to plan for the future.” The study – due to be detailed in the journal Psychological Science – focused on rural villagers in Ghana who have near-equal access to healthcare and wealth, but unequal access to education.

The researchers tested villagers’ working memory, Maths 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. One study participant correctly said that HIV can be transmitted by blood transfusions.

But when asked how he could minimise the risk of infection, he said he couldn’t get HIV from a transfusion if he wore a condom. “He had some of the right facts,” Peters says. “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. “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 programmes.”

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Category: Summer 2010

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