While an estimated 99 percent of Germans know about AIDS, increasingly more young people are at risk of infection. On World AIDS Day, activists hope to raise awareness for the need for more youth education.
German schools are not focusing enough on AIDS awareness
Udo Kwaschnik is an experienced advisor with AIDS-Hilfe Cologne, a self-help organization dedicated to AIDS prevention. Several times a week, school groups come to his office, where they're given an hour-long workshop on the topic. Kwaschnik has ties to more than 60 schools in the Cologne area. Despite the efforts of groups such as his, AIDS is falling off the radar in German schools.
"Since 1987, there's been an agreement that AIDS education has to take place in the ninth or tenth grade," Kwaschnik said. "But it was never really laid out how these lessons should happen. It could be that in some schools, the topic falls to the biology teacher, who would tend to talk more about the immune system. It could fall to the religion teacher. And lots of schools shy away from bringing up the issue of sexuality when they teach students about AIDS."
Kwaschnik says he's noticed a decline in media attention on the topic in recent years -- something he says is regrettable as media presence can color, in particular, young people's perception of the disease.
German AIDS awareness poster: "Ignorance kills"
"The kind of feedback I've been getting in discussions with young people in recent years is, it's not a topic anymore for young people, AIDS was a phenomenon of the 1980's, it doesn't affect them anymore," he said.
Not just a German problem
The problem is not limited to Germany. Just ahead of World AIDS Day, the European Union's executive Commission warned of the increasing numbers of Europeans contracting AIDS through unprotected sex, and said urgent action was needed to avoid an EU-wide public health disaster.
The commission warned that young people were especially at risk because they were either unaware or ignoring advice on practicing safe sex. The number of newly reported cases of HIV in the EU has nearly doubled since 1996, with the sharpest increase seen in the Baltic states.
German posters promoting condom use
In Germany, AIDS activists such as Cologne mayor Elfi Scho-Antwerpes acknowledge that AIDS awareness is lacking in German schools. She has pledged to do more to focus attention on the issue.
"On World AIDS Day, everyone hears about AIDS and HIV, but that's not enough. It has to be a topic all year long, and my wish would be for schools to incorporate this topic more regularly in their curriculum," she said.
At a highschool in the Cologne district of Porz, teacher Silvia Strubelt makes a concerted effort to educate her students about AIDS and how to prevent infection.
Ignorance kills, reads an AIDS poster in Germany.
"I guess I've been doubly impacted," said Strubelt. "On the one hand, I've had a lot to do with people who are HIV positive or sick with AIDS over the past 18 years of my life. And on the other hand, I have an intense fear that my students could be in the same situation one day. I have an almost missionary zeal to prevent them from ever having to experience that situation."
Strubelt's pupils are appreciative of their teacher's efforts.
"You might think that you know everything," said 18-year-old student Constanza Schulter. "But I think it's a good idea for AIDS to be regularly included in the curriculum, and not just once in the ninth grade."