University of Pittsburgh
March 4, 2002


Contact:  412-624-4147

March 1, 2002

PITTSBURGH—The second annual "Educating Teens About HIV/AIDS Month" will be conducted during March 2002. The event is the result of a community service project developed by Kezia Ellison, a Brown University freshman who created the project last year as a senior at the Ellis School in Pittsburgh. The project, which is sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health's Center for Minority Health and California University of Pennsylvania, was announced this morning at a news conference held at the Westin Convention Center.

Six area schools and six youth and religious organizations have signed up to conduct HIV/AIDS educational projects for high school students, and the City of Pittsburgh has officially recognized March as "Educating Teens About HIV/AIDS Month." Ellison hopes that more schools and youth organizations will join the efforts during the month.

"The sooner we take action, the more lives will be saved," says Ellison, who came up with the idea while at the Pennsylvania Governor's School for Health Care (PGSHC). "Having the knowledge about the deadly impact of AIDS, we will be able to work on preventing the spread of AIDS. Studies show that some youths are sexually active as early as 12 years old. It is possible that many junior and senior high schools students are not being educated about the impact of HIV/AIDS. We cannot let this problem escalate, and to fight it, we must start as a community."

Ellison's project has four goals: to spearhead a community effort to educate teenagers about the impact of AIDS; to encourage teenagers to make informed decisions about engaging in sexual activities; to promote abstinence as a way of preventing HIV/AIDS; and to encourage the practice of safe sex in the absence of abstinence.

Stephen B. Thomas, director of Pitt's Center for Minority Health and a member of Ellison's advisory panel, concurs with Ellison about the importance of targeting youth.

"What's most disturbing is that it's front-page news when an official of the stature of Colin Powell, when asked about AIDS on MTV, speaks of the importance of young people, when they are sexually active, to protect themselves," says Thomas. "It shows how far we have to go when the Secretary of State makes a scientifically accurate public health message about condoms, but it is seen in the press as controversial and politically risky. Clearly, we have to get beyond this stigma and marginalization of a message that can saves lives."

"We at the Pitt Men's Study are extremely concerned that while the number of new AIDS cases is lower in young people, there has not been a decline in the incidence of newly diagnosed HIV-1 infections among youth—13- to 24-year-olds, both males and females," says Charles Rinaldo, professor and chair of the Infectious Diseases and Microbiology Department at Pitt and principal investigator of the Pitt Men's Study, which is part of the national Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study. "Moreover, according to the Centers for Disease Control, young African Americans are most heavily affected, accounting for more than 50 percent of all HIV cases in this age group. Grassroots, community-based efforts like these today are essential in alerting youth of this public health danger and educating them in AIDS prevention."

The participating schools and youth groups have chosen to contribute to the efforts by showing a video, providing reading materials, or bringing in a speaker.

Ellison's PGSHC Service project began with a pre-survey of teenagers that measured their knowledge about HIV/AIDS. She contacted scores of area schools and religious and youth organizations to solicit their involvement in the project and engaged the assistance of Pittsburgh City Council, which officially recognized this month's designation at Ellison's urging.

Schools or youth organizations interested in participating in Educating Teens About HIV/AIDS Month should contact Ellison at (412) 624-5665.