WMU News

HIV programs at WMU prime example of how to do it right

February 24, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- When it comes to HIV education, prevention and testing, Western Michigan University is being cited as a prime example of how to do it right.

Not only is WMU Michigan's first state-designated campus to provide an oral antibody test for HIV, the virus associated with AIDS, but it is one of only eight institutions to be represented in a national study of model HIV education and prevention programs.

The oral HIV antibody testing program grew out of a national project begun in March 1997. WMU's Sindecuse Health Center was selected as one of 10 U.S. sites to partner with SmithKline Beecham to pilot the new OraSure oral HIV antibody testing system with college students.

Now, as a result of the study and the positive response from students, the health center has joined with the Michigan Department of Community Health to become the first designated OraSure counseling and testing site on a Michigan college campus.

The selection of WMU's HIV education and prevention program for national study is yet another achievement.

The study will evaluate and identify the characteristics of successful programs that provide campuswide prevention services. It is being conducted by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators as part of the association's Health Education and Leadership Program or HELP.

The association initiated the study this past fall through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help colleges and universities improve their prevention and education programs for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

"Our program, 'A Multi-Disciplinary Collaborative Approach to Sexual Risk Reduction,' encompasses a variety of activities and involves many offices and individuals throughout the University," said Christine G. Zimmer, director of WMU's Office of Health Promotion and Education in the Sindecuse Health Center.

Dr. Theresa A. Powell, vice president for student affairs, said that extensive involvement, along with the program's success and diversity, are major reasons why WMU is being included in such an important nationwide study.

"As our efforts are reviewed by colleagues across the country," Powell added, "I'm confident that we'll be shown to be on the leading edge of providing effective programming that can help our students stay healthy."

The other programs chosen for the study are at Broward Community College, Creighton University, the North Carolina School for the Arts, Stanford University, Syracuse University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Western Washington University.

HELP will use the study's findings to assist higher education administrators in strengthening HIV risk reduction programs through administrative leadership. Its activities will include developing case studies of selected programs; providing information, resources and referrals; and producing and distributing a leadership development manual to gain support for comprehensive integrated campus programs.

"HIV and other sexually transmitted infections are a significant threat to the health of many young people," Zimmer noted. "An estimated 35,000 to 45,000 college students are currently infected with HIV. Most of these students are unaware of their infection."

Other statistics show that AIDS is now the sixth leading cause of death for persons ages 13 to 21 and the leading cause for those ages 35 to 44. In addition, 50 percent of new HIV infections each year occur in people under age 25, and nearly 86 percent of sexually transmitted diseases occur among 15- to 29-year-olds.

"Lecturing to students about statistics rarely leads to changes in behavior," Zimmer said. "That's why we've developed a core of theory-driven, skill-building approaches to risk reduction and created a network of partners in health across the University community."

One such partner, the Department of Theatre, has teamed with the Sindecuse Health Center to provide practicum credit for cast and crew members of the Great Sexpectations Touring Theatre Company, one of WMU's most successful risk reduction initiatives.

Now completing its seventh performing season, the theatre company uses the power of improvisation to create scenarios that address common sexual and substance abuse concerns, with the goal of minimizing risk behaviors and helping students think carefully about choices and consequences.

"The company played to more than 3,000 students again last year and has performed at conferences and higher education institutions throughout the Midwest," Zimmer said. "We've achieved a national standard of excellence with this theatre-in-education model."

Most recently, she added, the Center for the Advancement of Public Health cited Great Sexpectations as one of four exemplary theatre-in-education models, highlighting it in a center project called "Promising Practices: Campus Alcohol Strategies for American Colleges and Universities."

Another WMU initiative is the health center's Sexual Health Peer Education Program, in which carefully trained pre-professional students work with nearly 4,000 of their peers each year, Zimmer said.

"It allows students planning to enter one of the helping professions to receive academic credit while building skills they will use in their future careers," she said. "At the same time, these peer educators provide a valued service to WMU and fellow students in a way that no adult could replicate."

WMU's multi-disciplinary, collaborative approach to risk reduction also includes: educational modules that are being used in a wide range of courses; an interactive computer HIV-risk assessment designed in collaboration with University Computing Services that can be used as a stand-alone activity, a class assignment or part of the University's HIV counseling and testing services; and a HealthQuest Interactive Resource System featuring a computer-assisted resource center and a World Wide Web site that is accessible from residence hall, office and home computers.

The University's major ongoing initiatives are supplemented by the work of the HIV/AIDS Education and Prevention Committee of the WMU HIV/AIDS Task Force. This faculty and staff committee has planned professional development conferences, played host to visiting scholars and helped bring to campus the widely attended display of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron; jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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