Sarah Goodwin

Kathi Ovnic
Holly Korschun
June 29, 1998

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND--Unsafe sexual practices combined with misconceptions about HIV/AIDS and homophobic attitudes are contributing to a dangerous situation for adolescents in The Republic of Georgia, which, like many of the former Soviet Union's republics, already is considered a country at high risk for a rise in HIV infection.

Emory University School of Medicine researchers, in a study conducted in collaboration with the Georgian AIDS and Clinical Immunology Research Center in Tbilisi, surveyed high school-aged students in Tbilisi and found that the students often engage in unsafe sexual activity and have inadequate knowledge about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases. Emory Associate Professor of Medicine Carlos del Rio, M.D., presented the results of the cooperative research at this week's 12th World AIDS Congress in Geneva.

The researchers surveyed 464 students ages 15 to 18 in 10 randomly selected high schools in Tbilisi, using a self-administered questionnaire. Of the group surveyed, 250 were women and 214 men. Two-hundred seventy-eight of the students (60.8%) had engaged in sexual activity by the age of 16, but only 85 (30.6%) said that had ever used a condom during intercourse. Most of the students (71.4%) thought that condoms could protect against HIV, but only 12% thought condoms were necessary when partners love each other. Seventy-six percent of the students believed that condoms can be reused after washing.

Most of the students (72%) believed that AIDS is a disease exclusively of homosexuals, prostitutes and drug users. Most also believed that people with HIV should be isolated, and half said they would not want to study with an HIV-infected person for fear of contracting the disease.

Although there are only 61 persons reported with HIV/AIDS in the Republic of Georgia through March of 1998, up to 1,000 persons in Georgia are believed to be HIV-infected. Although this is a small number compared to other countries, says Dr. del Rio, Georgia is considered at high risk for HIV infection because of a rise in sexually transmitted infections, a growing number of intravenous drug users and a rising commercial sex trade.

"The Republic of Georgia offers a great opportunity to prevent the spread of HIV," Dr. del Rio says. "In many respects the attitudes of students there are similar to those of students in the United States. The differences stem from the fact that HIV/AIDS is a new disease in Georgia and that schools there do not offer sex education programs."

Emory continues to work in Tbilisi with its Georgian colleagues through a World AIDS Foundation grant as well as through the Atlanta-Tbilisi Health Partnership. "We also are in the process of developing an AIDS International Training and Research Program which would include our work in Georgia," Dr. del Rio reports.

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