Teenagers walking down the street

Portugal’s Positive Approach to Teaching Teens about the Birds, Bees and STIs

Stories@Gilead - May 18, 2022

When medical student Cátia Seabra talks to high school classes in Portugal about sexually transmitted infections, her goal is to normalize sexual health education and make sure students don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed.

“I don’t want to scare them. I want to inform them,” she says. “They can still have a good sexual experience while being responsible.”

Cátia explains to her students that sex comes with benefits and risks similar to getting a driver's license. “It's exhilarating, there's a sense of freedom and independence, still safeguards need to be taken while driving.”

Since December 2020, Cátia has taught sexual health education classes to high schoolers as part of Academia Pensa Positivo, which translates to Think Positive Academy in English. The Gilead-sponsored initiative aims to educate young people in Portugal about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and dispel the misconceptions and stigma associated with them. The program is led by three doctors, including Dr. João Paulo Caldas, an infectious disease physician based in Porto.

“We want to leave young people with enough knowledge and confidence to identify STI symptoms if they arise and teach them the importance of requesting STI screenings, since many infections are asymptomatic,” says João.

The educational materials, created with the assistance of an infectious disease specialist, are presented to 15-18 year old teenagers, as well as to university students in pharmacy and med school. After hearing the presentation, university students like Cátia are then tapped to help grow the program, enabling it to reach more teens throughout the country.

Dispelling STI Myths
The program has helped reveal that many students don't know the difference between HIV and AIDS, so the instructors teach them about the important distinction. When João started the program two years ago he was surprised by the number of students who assumed that an HIV diagnosis was essentially a death sentence.

"We make sure to dispel this and explain that nowadays if you learn you are living with HIV and receive the proper treatment you can live an ordinary life," he explains.

João believes this program is now more important than ever due to a drop-off in sexual education lessons in Portugal’s schools and the fact that HIV is not discussed as much as it was decades ago, during the height of the HIV epidemic. Some students he talks to wrongly believe you can get syphilis from kissing, or that STI screening is included in routine blood work at the doctor's office.

“Many high schoolers are at the very beginning of their sexual journey and having sexual encounters for the first time,” says João. “They need that journey to be guided by facts.”

The Academy works hard to create a safe conversation space with the students and to present the information in engaging ways, such as with online games and assessments.

That’s where med students like Cátia come in. She is relatable to the students and has a knack for gaining their confidence and presenting the information in easy-to-understand terms. She has also designed her presentations to be part of a more positive learning environment than was typical when she was in high school.

“Back then, STI education was about instilling fear in students by showing very graphic photos of extreme cases in the hope of scaring young people into being cautious,” says Cátia. While extreme cases are alarming, they’re not a common experience for most young people, who may have more mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. “Scaring young people into engaging in healthier behaviors rarely works.”

"Just like the name of the program implies, a positive approach to sex health education can help produce healthier outcomes," says João.

Photo credit: Rawpixel/Shutterstock.com

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