Five primary school pupils were found to be infected with HIV in 2016.
Two boys, aged eight and 11, and three girls, aged seven, nine and ten, are currently receiving treatment according to a report from the Ministry of Education.
The incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among school children was the focus of a Joint Select Committee (JSC) meeting yesterday at the Parliament, International Waterfront Centre, Port of Spain.
While officials from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education could not provide statistics on the prevalence of STDs among school children, specialist medical officer Dr Aruna Divakaruni said a significant number of school-aged children had sought the services of the Queen’s Park Counselling Centre which provides counselling to those infected with STDs.
“Most of them are school children,” she said. “They have older partners. Most of the time they are abused by stepfathers or a brother or cousin or somebody like that.” Others engaged in sexual activity willingly, she added.
Sex education resistance
But despite school children engaging in sexual activity and being at risk for various STDs, the Ministry of Health has been meeting with resistance from schools and parents regarding the teaching of sexual education by qualified medical professionals, she said.
Divakaruni was responding to committee chairman Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir, who questioned whether there was a programme whereby qualified doctors could go into the schools and educate pupils on STD prevention as well as train teachers to introduce the topic appropriately in their teaching.
She said the Health Ministry had tried to introduce such a programme but did not get support from the schools. “Right now we don’t have that arrangement, but a few years back we honestly tried. We sent our trained doctors to schools to teach children, even to teach teachers and other staff members about STDs. I, myself, attended quite a few schools to teach them and to educate them to include awareness of STDs in children, but we faced a lot of resistance from the schools and teachers and even from parents of the children.”
Divakaruni said many parents believed pupils were being educated “too much” about sex and STDs, which would encourage them to go out and engage in sexual activity.
She said efforts were also made to distribute condoms to pupils in order to encourage safe-sex practices, but this too was met with resistance.
Chief Education Officer Harrilal Seecharan said there has been consultation with stakeholders, including the National Parent-Teacher Association and the various denominational boards, and the level of resistance to sexual education is being “broken down”.
Mahabir expressed surprise that in 2017 parents and church bodies were opposed to children being taught about STDs. He said this needed to be immediately addressed.
However, Seecharan said pupils are at present exposed to sexual education at both secondary and primary school levels. “Within the curriculum, we have a health and family life education programme, and one of the modules within that deals with sexuality and sexual health education,” he said.
“At the secondary level, it is implemented between Forms One to Three; at the primary school it is infused so age-appropriate strategies are used.”
He said at the primary school level, children are taught about “good touch and bad touch”, whereas at the secondary level, abstinence is promoted as well as teaching about STD prevention.