An increase in formal schooling has led to a reduction in AIDS infections in sub-Saharan Africa says a new study.
During the early stages of the HIV pandemic in the region, the disease passed unnoticed amidst the onslaught of other infections.
But after taking a closer look at the deadly disease, scientists have found that more often males with a higher than average education were contracting the disease.
"Before the 1990s, in the impoverished regions of sub-Saharan Africa, even modest amounts of education afforded males higher income, more leisure time, and, for some males, greater access to commercial sex workers," said David Baker, professor of education and sociology at Penn State and lead author of the study.
The rise in HIV/AIDS infections was due to the fact that information about AIDS, though already percolating in wealthier countries, did not get to sub-Saharan Africa until the mid 1990s.
During the study, the researchers specifically looked at males ages 15 to 24, 25 to 34, and older than 35. The participants were tested for HIV infection, and interviewed about their education, social status and sexual behavior.
The researchers revealed that because the youngest members of the oldest group-the 35 and older-became sexually mature in the late 1980s, when there was little or no information about AIDS, higher education proved to be a risk factor rather than a social vaccine.
However, formal schooling did reduce the risk of HIV infections in the youngest group by up to 34 percent in Guinea, Malawi, Senegal, Cameroon, Ghana, and Kenya.
"At 24 years, the oldest member of this young group reached sexual maturity in the mid 1990s, when there was already widespread knowledge that HIV and AIDS could be contracted through unprotected sex and intravenous drug use," said Baker.
The researchers hypothesize that reasoning skills gained in school by younger adults play a preventative role against HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.
"More educated people have the cognitive tools to make better sense out of facts presented to them," said Baker.
"We have shown that when there is sufficient information, and no misinformation, people with education adopt healthy strategies to avoid infections," he added.
The findings appear in the UNESCO journal Prospects.