Despite having a conservative reputation, Orange County residents overwhelmingly favor liberal approaches toward AIDS education and awareness, according to a poll released Wednesday.
Ninety-one percent favor junior and senior high schools teaching AIDS prevention, while 76% back teaching children about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the early grades, according to a special segment of the 1995 Orange County Annual Survey.
As for more aggressive preventive steps, the survey's findings were less clear.
While 65% supported making condoms available at high schools, 52% opposed dispensing free needles and syringes to drug users, according to the survey, one of the first to deal with Orange County attitudes toward AIDS.
The survey's results generally reflect similar findings in national polls that examined attitudes toward AIDS, according to UC Irvine professor Mark Baldassare, who conducted the research. The poll was co-funded by the Irvine Health Foundation and FHP Foundation.
"We had the belief that people would be generally supportive," said Edward Kacic, executive director of the nonprofit Irvine Health Foundation. "But we were surprised at the overwhelming support on the issues."
As part of the 14th Orange County Annual Survey, the poll put 40 questions to 1,001 adult residents between Aug. 18 and 27, exploring their attitudes about AIDS prevention, education and awareness. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Several questions were repeated from national surveys for comparison purposes.
Orange County's support for AIDS educational programs is rooted in grave perceptions about the spread of the disease, researchers said. Seventy-three percent rank AIDS as a "big problem" in the United States today, and 66% believe the disease will eventually become widespread, the survey showed.
"People regard this as a very serious problem and that education is an important element in dealing with it," said Baldassare, chair of UCI's urban and regional planning department.
Despite the high level of concern, AIDS finished well behind health-care costs as the nation's most urgent health issue, the survey found. While 27% of residents named AIDS as the nation's top health concern, 53% answered costs for care were more pressing. However, AIDS was viewed as a more important problem than both cancer (14%) and heart disease (4%).
Health educators hope the survey will spark efforts to expand AIDS education across the county, and especially in public schools.
"Hopefully, we can move ahead with things without fearing we are going against the prevailing opinions," said Kacic, whose organization makes grants to health agencies in Orange County. "Without a cure, education is the best weapon we have right now."
Under state law, public schools must offer a basic AIDS education program at least once in middle school and once in high school. Schools are required to expose students to a core of AIDS-related issues including abstinence, how the disease is spread, how to withstand peer pressure in a sexual situation, and a section on myths about the disease. But schools have the discretion over how the information is presented.
"There's a whole variety of how that's implemented," said Linda Kearns, AIDS education coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education. "Some do a great deal with AIDS education, incorporating it into math and history classes. Other districts present it strictly in science and don't go any further."
Laguna Beach Unified School District is the only school system in Orange County that makes condoms available to high school students, Kearns said.
Though the survey indicates strong support for some AIDS-related programs, such efforts would be certain to encounter stiff resistance. For example, Max Reissmueller, a trustee with the Orange Unified School District, strongly opposes making condoms available to high school students.
"The schools shouldn't be a welfare office," Reissmueller said. "I don't think schools should be involved in social engineering. Schools should provide an education, not provide for everyone's needs."
The survey showed that 10% of residents said it is "very likely" that they would participate in a protest against AIDS education and prevention programs in their local public schools. Also, 10% said they would be more likely to vote against school board members who endorsed teaching AIDS prevention in local schools.
In other results, the poll found 29% of residents said they have altered their sexual behavior because of AIDS, while 41% said they personally knew someone, living or dead, who has or had contracted AIDS.
The poll also found many residents regard the disease as a potential threat to themselves or their families. Forty-one percent said they worry that a family member might contract AIDS, while 22% fear they themselves might get AIDS. Among parents, 63% worry that their children could fall victim to the disease.
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Three-quarters of county residents think AIDS is a big problem, and they are willing to make condoms available to high school students as well as begin teaching children about AIDS in elementary school. But they would not support dispensing free needles to IV drug users. Survey respondents were asked to approve or disapprove:
Make condoms available to high school students as part of an AIDS prevention program
Don't know: 1%
Begin teaching children about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the early grades
Don't know: 1%
Dispense free needles and syringes to IV drug users to cut down on shared needles
Don't know: 3%
While 41% say they are at least somewhat worried a family member might get AIDS, only about half that percent say they are worried about contracting the disease themselves. And just three in 10 say they have changed sexual behavior patterns:
* How concerned are you that a member of your family will get AIDS? / How worried are you that at some time in the future you might get AIDS?
Family member Self Very worried 14% 7% Somewhat worried 27% 15% Not too worried 31% 25% Not at all worried 28% 52% Don't know - 1%
Percent saying "yes"
* Have you made any kinds of changes in your sexual behavior because of AIDS? 29%
* Have you ever been tested for HIV, the AIDS virus? 44%
* Do you personally know someone, either living or dead, who has contracted AIDS? 41%
Source: Orange County Annual Survey, UC Irvine