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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU studies link between substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases

A grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is helping New Mexico State University educate students about alcohol and substance abuse as a factor in HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. SAMHSA is a public health agency within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Amanda Lain of the Camino de Vida Center for HIV Services discusses HIV testing with an NMSU student. Representatives from the center visit the campus to provide free HIV tests and educational literature to students, faculty and staff. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips) HIV testing kit (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Lisa Dalton, an assistant professor in NMSU's School of Social Work, was awarded the $100,000 grant that can be renewed over three years. Grant money is used to pay for safe sex supplies and other educational materials, peer educator education and to sponsor special events.

People who drink heavily may be more likely to practice risky sex after drinking. High-risk sexual behaviors may include multiple sex partners, unprotected intercourse, sex with prostitutes or injection drug users, and the exchange of sex for money or drugs. Others may use alcohol to excuse socially unacceptable behavior or to reduce their conscious awareness of risk.

Drinking, risky sexual behavior and the "invincibility" mindset of many 18-to-25-year-olds on a college campus magnify the importance of HIV testing, said Dalton, who recommends different ways to reduce the stigma of HIV testing.

"You put it (HIV testing) in a context that normalizes it for them, like a classroom," she said. "Or you offer them extra credit to get tested. Just because they're getting tested doesn't mean they're promiscuous."

Sometimes a real-life example is the best way to get a point across. Dalton tells her classes that of 86 NMSU students who were recently tested for HIV/AIDS, one tested positive.

"As we continue to gather these statistics, people will see that it is happening here," she said. "I also talk about the experiences at Camino de Vida Center for HIV Services. Their rate of transmission is growing among 18-to-25-year-olds, particularly the women, because men are having sex with men or prostitutes or IV-drug users and then going home and having sex with the women in their lives. And even though the man may be the only partner the woman has ever had, the woman is still turning up positive."

Workers from Camino de Vida come to campus to test students because legal considerations prevent peer educators from doing so. The peer educators' job is to visit classrooms, talk with students outside class, and hand out literature on sexually transmitted diseases and substance abuse. Because peer educators tend to be closer in age than faculty members to their classmates, this is an effective way to get the message across, Dalton said.

The peer educators are graduate students who use the acronym "SHAG" for "Sexual Health Advocacy Group." Five graduate students - Shelly Oakes, the project manager; Janine Froehlich, the peer managers' trainer; Stacey Berry; Katy Eichenberg; and Javier Garcia - are SHAG members.

"We respect the fact that not everyone is having sex," Oakes said. "We're not there to shove the information down the students' throats. This is knowledge to use if you do decide to have sex. We respect the rights of the students and if they don't want to ask certain questions in front of their classmates, they can come to the College of Health and Social Sciences on Fridays and ask the peer educators questions."

The work done by Dalton and the peer educators is "a great vehicle for building a university/community partnership," said Stephen Anderson, academic head of the NMSU School of Social Work.

Larry Olsen, associate dean for academics and research in the College of Health and Social Services, said NMSU has a responsibility to the population and that the university should be involved in stopping the spread of communicable diseases.

"It would be nice if we could say we don't have any communicable diseases on campus," Olsen said.

Monthly HIV testing will continue in the College of Health and Social Services until the end of the year. HIV testing and education are part of NMSU's continuing outreach efforts to help educate and improve the lives of citizens of our community and state.