Lessons learned from HIV can tackle the Ebola crisis

On 15 September, the UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences will be awarded in Malabo. This year’s winners include a biologist, a soil scientist, and a research institute on tropical diseases. The selection of these laureates reflects a UNESCO priority: to promote health and human development through science. A scientific roundtable will accompany the prize ceremony so that scientists can engage with decision makers on important health topics in Africa and the world. For example, UNESCO is working with Member States to apply lessons learned in health education about HIV to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

UNESCO grounds its support to Member States in the best available scientific evidence to promote health and well-being through education.  For HIV, this work focuses on sexuality and puberty education for young people. From this experience, the Organization has learned about the importance of inter-sectoral collaboration and the symbiotic relationship between health and education. In South and West Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa, literate women are up to 30 percentage points more likely to be aware that they have the right to refuse sex or request a condom than those who cannot read.

Good health and the right to quality education enables students to stay in school and strengthens their participation in democratic, peaceful and sustainable multicultural societies. Thus, UNESCO promotes healthy lifestyles and gender equality in educational settings and helps countries to prepare its young people to develop the knowledge, skills, values and behaviours they need to live healthier and more productive lives.

UNESCO’s pioneering work in HIV and health education has led to tangible results. A recent example is the Eastern and Southern Africa Ministerial Commitment marking a new era for the region. On 7 December last year, health and education ministers and representatives from 20 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa affirmed a landmark commitment to provide sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services for young people. This Commitment is the result of intensive consultation at regional and country level and paves the way for increased HIV prevention through comprehensive sexuality education and essential health services.

This campaign led to a new national programme in Zambia and supported by UNESCO. Harriet Tembo, aged 15, a student at Kablonga Basic School in Lusaka, the capital, says that the new sexuality education curriculum is important for young people: “I think the knowledge which I’m going to receive will help me stay in school longer and it will also make me focus on my future and help me achieve my dreams.”

Building on experiences like this, UNESCO is turning its attention to the recent outbreak of Ebola. The Organisation is planning efforts to use its successful school-based programming and mass communication strategies in the region, such as radio and broadcast text messages, to deliver timely and accurate information about Ebola prevention and care through local languages and culturally appropriate means.

Globally, UNESCO works with a wide range of partners, including Member States, UN agencies, civil society and academia, to improve quality of life. At a time when the world is looking for new ways to build peace and sustainable development, people rely on the power of knowledge to innovate, expand their horizons and sustain the hope of a new humanism.