Utah's AIDS curricula received a "A" from the nation's toughest health critic - the U.S. surgeon general who also believes parents and teachers must encourage young people to practice sexual abstinence while in school and monogamy as adults to stem the nation's deadly epidemic.
"I am pleased whenever I see any kind of a curriculum get started because I think the fears of most parents are exaggerated," said Dr. C. Everett Koop, featured speaker at the 92nd annual National PTA Convention in the Salt Palace. "When they see what the curriculum is, they let their guard down a little bit, and then it becomes a cooperative effort between school boards, teachers and parents."I am deeply saddened that we must explain human sexuality . . . so that they do not contract the fatal disease, but we must," Koop said. "It is a life-saving message, and we are duty-bound to deliver it."
Prior to addressing the concluding conference session Tuesday, Koop praised the State Board of Education's two-tiered AIDS education curricula - one program for standard use in Utah classrooms and a second, more explicit program for students identified as "at risk" for acquired immune deficiency syndrome or whose parents prefer they receive more detailed information.
The board struggled for months to balance the need for specificity with the challenge of appeasing a vocal minority who oppose schools teaching sex education.
Before the curricula are taught in the classrooms, the attorney general's office must resolve whether teachers may answer, without parental consent, spontaneous student questions related to contraception.
Koop, known for his candor, said he doesn't know how legal constraints can be placed on a teacher to prevent him or her from answering questions.
"But I've always said you cannot exceed the standards of that community," he said. "So even though I would like to be a little more forthright, more direct to students (n teaching about AIDS), it would never fly in Utah or any place else if the people who live in that community say it isn't what they want to have happen."
Koop said his own latest AIDS educational effort, an eight-page pamphlet that discusses condoms, among other subjects, apparently has received a favorable reception, with the exception of "very few, very far-right-wing" protesters, one senator who "decried its presence," and many people who don't realize that Congress mandated the mailing and also paid $17 million for it to be printed and mailed to 107 million American households.
"Judging from the number of people who've accosted me in airports, everyone in the world has read it twice," he said.
Koop responded strongly to criticism that the brochure didn't reach the homeless or intravenous drug users.
"The homeless group is not where AIDS is most rampant," he said. "And we have one problem in this country that other countries don't have with IV drug users; ours are illiterate."
Nevertheless, Koop said the federal government is using as many creative ideas as possible - including comic books - to reach this high-risk population with visual messages. Former intravenous drug users are also being enlisted to take the prevention messages to the streets.
Koop believes enough money is being spent on AIDS-related programs, with $1.3 billion earmarked for the next fiscal year.
But despite the urgency, "there is no vaccine on the horizon and probably will not be in this century," he said. "There is never going to be a cure in the sense that you have penicillin for a strep throat.
"For the immediate future, the best hope is a pharmaceutical breakthrough that can prevent the virus from replicating itself."
Koop, featured speaker before the full PTA delegate body at a general session, presented the PTA's first AIDS education award to the Gainesville, Fla., High School Parent Teacher Student Association for the most effective education program.
Working with local health professionals and school personnel, the PTSA conducted a pre-test to determine what students knew about AIDS, arranged in-service training for school staff, and coordinated and facilitated a role-playing program for students.
Seven other PTAs were also recognized by the national organization for their outstanding AIDS education programs.