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School Textbooks Miss Key Health Education
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School Textbooks Miss Key Health Education

Like many other countries Iran is seeing an upswing in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) among school students. Studies show that obesity is the most common health problem among the youth which provides the trigger for other illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems.
In addition, challenging social and behavioral issues such as the increasing number of drug addicts and the spread of HIV, all have their roots in the lack of awareness among the young generation.
School is one of the best platforms to educate the youth about diseases and their prevention, but health education does not appear to be a priority in the school curriculum and subjects dealing with the issues are not given serious thought.
Although the education system has undergone structural modifications - from revision in the textbooks to the grading system in primary schools - health and prevention have a small share in the school syllabus. Little or no time is allocated to teaching life skills or to cultivate healthy habits and self-care, or to help change unhealthy lifestyles. Creating awareness about illnesses, whose rates are alarming not only among adults but also among school children, is equally important.
Shahram Rafieifar, head of the Health Education Department at the Health Ministry, told the Persian weekly “Salamat” that the chapters which discuss health and hygiene in textbooks are not adequate, nor are they formally taught to students.
But he gave glad tidings. The Health Ministry is preparing a comprehensive health education program based on which textbook content will include chapters on health and hygiene in all grades. Plans are also being devised for teachers and parents, he said.
The program will give priority to prevention of diseases especially NCDs. Lessons on diseases such as HIV/AIDS are also on the agenda but only for certain grades and appropriate age groups.
However, he said, as the program is comprehensive, its development will take time and it is not likely to be implemented in the next academic year (starts September 23).

 Worrying Trend
Several subjects including the sexually transmitted HIV/AIDS disease is considered a taboo in many cultures and discussions on the topic are often avoided especially when it comes to young adolescents.
Minou Mohrez, head of the AIDS Research Center, holds the Education Ministry responsible for the lacunae.
According to Mohrez, what is more worrying than the increasing infection rate is that the transmission method of the disease has seen a shift from shared syringes to risky sexual behavior. The majority of the infected population is the youth, including teenagers, with recent reports indicating that risky behavior among students had increased.
Data points to young people’s inadequate awareness of risky behavior and the Education Ministry should be partly held accountable since the school years are the best to develop such consciousness, said Mohrez.
Once young adults are unwittingly caught in the grip of social vices, often due to their vulnerability, it may be too late to redeem them.
She also pointed to the wrong outlook towards discussing sexual health in schools on the grounds that “it can push the youth in the wrong direction.”
“If these subjects are presented at an appropriate age and in conformity with our culture, not only will children not be tempted to turn to risky behavior, but they also will learn how to protect themselves against social harm,” the official said.  
She hoped that the Health Ministry’s planned comprehensive program will make up for the Education Ministry’s lackadaisical performance in this regard.

 Some Progress  
Despite all criticism, the Education Ministry’s projects with regard to improving students’ health indexes show that it has not been completely inattentive. Distribution of iron supplements, registering health data of students and providing oral and dental healthcare for primary school students are among the ministry’s initiatives to help improve students’ health.
But critics still believe that in terms of health education, its contribution is below expectations.
Kamyab Sadri, head of the Health Office at Tehran Province Education Department, told ‘Salamat’ that health chapters have been introduced in biology and hygiene books, but are optional and are taught, if at all, outside of the formal class hours.
In order to be made compulsory subjects, they have to get the approval of the Supreme Council of Education, the body that decides all education-related polices and regulations.  
He also pointed to two student associations in high schools: ‘Health Pioneers’ in the lower grades, and ‘Health Ambassadors’ in the higher grades, which have specific education modules, but lessons are given as extracurricular programs.
Based on an agreement between the ministries of health and education, a separate book on ‘Health and Hygiene’ is underway and will be made compulsory and part of the formal syllabus.
The urgency to give lessons on prevention of diseases and risky behavior has not been felt so far in the education system and it is not clear when the Health Ministry’s pledges will be honored.

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