Students bring health education to community

While Yale professors face difficult questions, they usually do not have to take a stab at inquiries on the physical phenomenon known as “blue balls.”

“Someone immediately raised his hand [in our workshop, and] the first question we got was, ‘What is blue balls?’” said Noah Dobin-Bernstein ’06, one of the group leaders for the HIV, AIDS and sexually transmitted infections portion of the Community Health Educators curriculum.

Community Health Educators, from a Dwight Hall organization of the same name, field such questions with the grace of a tenured faculty member.

“We gave a technical response,” Dobin-Bernstein said, debunking many of the myths of blue balls. “Often the myths that [students] have heard from their peers and their media perpetuate.”

As the University continues to research the effectiveness of different HIV-prevention techniques, Yale health program coordinators say their groups’ techniques have proven effective for the both the Yale and New Haven communities. The University maintains numerous organizations that address pressing health concerns. To help combat the spread of sexually transmitted infections, Yale supports organizations that work within the University, the city of New Haven and abroad.

Melinda Delis ’06, the publicity head of Walden, a peer-counseling organization at Yale, said there are many on-campus educational outlets for students.

“My personal opinion is that there are a lot of resources available at Yale,” Delis said.

The Community Health Educators group is comprised of undergraduate students who go to local high schools to educate students on health-related issues.

Because the New Haven School District cut most of its sexual education funding in 1999, CHE has filled the void by supplying health education in New Haven schools, CHE Co-Coordinator Cara Demmerle ’06 said. The organization began with six students in one classroom at Wilbur Cross High School. Now 130 Yale students teach about 1,000 freshmen every year at 11 schools.

“We are definitely reaching more students than we have in the past,” Demmerle said.

The organization provides health-related information and resources students can use to find out more about health concerns.

“More than anything we try to facilitate an honest and informed conversation about HIV and other STDs,” Dobin-Bernstein said. “From there we go on to discuss symptoms of different diseases, in what ways they can be transmitted and what ways they can’t be transmitted, [because] if you can avoid just those few things, it is very possible to remain safe.”

CHE deals with many health issues, ranging from nutrition to contraception, not just HIV, which is a recent addition to the CHE curriculum.

“We create a space where people in public schools can ask questions of people not much older than them … [about] issues that they’re not very comfortable discussing,” Dobin-Bernstein said.

The educators have to continually reinvent the manners in which these topics will be presented to the students. Constantly finding new ways to address health concerns requires an ever-evolving training process, Demmerle said.

Other organizations have similarly demanding training processes. All Walden counselors must undergo extensive training, Delis said.

The city of New Haven itself also provides many sources of STD education for its community.

“There are a lot of good people doing good work to deal with HIV in our city,” said Patrick Armstrong, the coordinator of HIV testing and counseling at the New Haven Department of Health. “[New Haven has] a pretty unified AIDS campaign involving collaboration with many organizations.”

These organizations include the AIDS Interfaith Network and AIDS Project New Haven, which, along with the city, employ methods ranging from needle-exchange programs to discussion groups. This united front is especially necessary in New Haven, where the AIDS rate is about five times the national average, Demmerle said.

Yale’s focus on AIDS has broken out of its New Haven borders and expanded around the world. The Yale AIDS Network embodies this global perspective Yale AIDS Network member David Scales MED ’09 said.

“We’re very focused on a specific issue concerning HIV in developing countries: how intellectual property and property rights can restrict access to individual medicines across the globe,” Scales said.

The organization was instrumental in convincing Yale to not enforce its patent in South Africa for the antiretroviral drug d4T, slashing the price of the drug overnight by 50 percent and leading to a 95-percent decrease in the price since 2001.

“We’re committed to trying to reduce price as a barrier to access [to HIV drugs],” Scales said.

The organization has gone national, as chapters have spread to nearly 25 other universities.Yale’s attempts to deal with health issues concerning HIV and STDs reflect the threat of these diseases.

Despite the attempts of on-campus organizations, Dobin-Bernstein said he thinks Yale students are still inadequately informed.

“I think that the Yale student body, because of a lot of social issues that HIV and AIDS have created in the country, [has] a fairly good working knowledge of issues concerning HIV/AIDS, but much less knowledge about other STDs,” Dobin-Bernstein said.The social awareness of the effect of HIV/AIDS on the immediate community also needs improvement, he said.

“Few Yale students are in touch with how serious an issue HIV and AIDS are in the United States, and especially in New Haven, because a lot of academic focus has shifted to areas like Africa,” Dobin-Bernstein said.

Although the work of numerous Yale volunteers to educate students both on and off campus may gradually help turn the tide of the AIDS epidemic and other pressing health concerns through successful education, the volunteers themselves said they feel there is much more to do.

“I don’t have any illusion that I am combating the spread of HIV and reducing teenage pregnancy by huge numbers,” Demmerle said. “But I do feel that we do reach students [and] communicate the importance of the issue.”

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