WASHINGTON — Federal health officials will award $10 million this fiscal year to state education agencies to help them design and introduce comprehensive AIDS sex and drug education programs into the classroom--the first government financing for AIDS education in the schools, The Times has learned.
"Society cannot wait to begin to do this," said Dennis Tolsma, an official with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, which is sponsoring the program. "There is a lot of urgency here. People must be convinced that this is needed--and needed now."
He added: "Many health behaviors are adopted early in life. We have to deal with them when young people are still learning about themselves and making decisions."
The program, part of the augmented AIDS budget request, was already in the planning stages before Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and the independent Institute of Medicine, an affiliate of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, issued recent AIDS reports, both of which urged that AIDS education be implemented as quickly as possible in the schools.
The Institute of Medicine, calling for an immediate escalation of AIDS education on all levels, also recommended an annual expenditure of $1 billion on education alone by 1990, most of it coming from federal sources.
Tolsma, director of the CDC's Center for Health Promotion and Education, said he expects the two reports to accelerate such efforts. "The scientific world has closed ranks," he said. "We will take that message out to the schools. A year from now you'll see things being taught in schools that aren't being taught now."
Tolsma said the CDC will be available to assist state education departments, working in conjunction with state health agencies and local school authorities, in drawing up programs for teaching youngsters about AIDS.
"The schools are a very important vehicle for transmitting information," he said. "There are 47 million kids in the nation's schools, as well as several million faculty and staff who also need to understand about AIDS."
Further, he said, such education programs can also serve "as a vehicle for passing that information to society through children to their parents."
While the CDC intends to offer guidance, each school district must devise its own program, he said.
"School curricula are intensely local affairs," Tolsma said. "Their decision-making is local. That's the way it should be. The community makes the decisions. No one single approach is going to be used everywhere. In areas where intravenous drug use is a large concern, for example, you would probably see more attention there. In other communities, more attention might be paid to sexual transmission."
He added: "We want them to come in and say to us: 'Here are the things we feel we need in our state.' We need a plan from them, a description of what they are going to do. They can look to us for consultation and assistance."
Tolsma said that "there are a fair number of educational materials being developed around the country. We will be acquiring these and reviewing them and we will let people know where they can get them. New York City, for example, has some quite good educational films."
The CDC will also finance teacher organizations, local school boards and parent-teacher groups "to get them involved in promoting quality AIDS education in the schools," he said.
Tolsma said he expects little resistance to the introduction of AIDS education in the schools. The National School Boards Assn., he said, has already adopted a position "saying that schools need to provide AIDS education," which he called "an indication that we'll get good response at the leadership level--and that filters on down through society."
Destroys Immune System
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by a virus that destroys the body's immune system, leaving it powerless against certain cancers and otherwise rare infections. It can also invade the central nervous system and cause severe neurological disorders.
It is transmitted through anal and vaginal sexual intercourse, through the sharing of unsterilized hypodermic needles, and by mother to fetus during pregnancy.
Those at highest risk have been homosexual and bisexual men, intravenous drug users and their sexual partners. But in recent months, medical experts have warned that the next potential risk group could be adolescents, if they engage in sexual experimentation or intravenous drug use.
"I don't know if every school system in America feels that this is an urgent problem that has to be addressed," Tolsma said. "But we will be advocating it."