Friday, September 10, 2010

Education, Not Knowledge, Favors Health

A recent study of HIV education in rural Ghana found that simply telling people how to prevent the spread of HIV might not do much to slow the spread of the disease. The study, published online in Psychological Science, found that people with limited formal education have not always developed the cognitive skills to understand how to stop the spread of HIV.

The study of 181 adults found that a person's level of formal education, rather than a person's knowledge of HIV/AIDS prevention, best predicted whether or not the person took steps to protect themselves from HIV infection.

"About $8.9 billion has been spent on HIV prevention in Ghana and the surrounding region since 2000, primarily through disseminating facts about the disease," stated a recent press release on the study. "But the effectiveness of these programs has never been adequately studied." The study's lead author, Ellen Peters, explained that "Our findings suggest that those effects, however well intentioned they may be, may not be sufficient without efforts to help at-risk adults to reason correctly with the facts they have been taught."

Unfortunately, the connection between health and education works the other way, too: some parasitic illnesses common in the developing world cause cognitive or physical problems that can interfere with a child's ability to attend school, an issue that I've blogged about before.

Numerous studies in wealthier countries have found a link between educational level and health behaviors: the more education someone has, the healthier they tend to be. The Ghana study looked at the developing world and found the same pattern.

The disease burden is enormous in sub-Saharan Africa, where Ghana is located. Sub-Saharan residents, who make up 11% of the world population, "suffer 24 percent of the world's disease burden -- which is addressed with less than 1 percent of the world's health care spending," Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote in their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. About 2% of the population of Ghana has HIV/AIDS, and the country also contends with high rates of malaria and other health problems.

The Ghana study raises some interesting questions. For example, what role can education play in helping people to learn how to prevent or reduce their risk for these diseases? And should some portion of the limited health care budget in sub-Saharan Africa be spent providing a stronger general education to the population, rather than directly on health care services and disease education?

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