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Psychology professor receives $2.2 million grant for AIDS education research (Released: 12/7/95)

by Sherry Fisher, Office of University Communications.

STORRS, Conn. -- University of Connecticut Psychology Professor Jeffrey Fisher has been awarded a $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health to create AIDS education programs aimed at changing risky sexual behaviors in teen-agers.

He is developing three innovative, theoretically based AIDS prevention programs that will be implemented in 16 high schools in Connecticut and Massachusetts within the next four years, following two years of extensive preliminary research and pilot testing.

High schools with at least 50 percent African-American and Hispanic enrollment have been selected because minority adolescents are the fastest- growing risk population for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, Fisher said.

While 70 percent of all U.S. high school students are sexually active by the time they graduate, only 15 percent to 30 percent of them use condoms regularly, Fisher said. These high levels of unprotected intercourse are underscored by epidemic rates of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy in teen-agers.

Despite evidence of high levels of unprotected sex and HIV risk, and the fact the HIV has hit the high school population, no effective school-based interventions have been identified, Fisher said.

To address this problem, he is developing three programs based on a social psychological model that can be used across the country if they are effective in the Connecticut and Massachusetts schools.

"Our model specifies that you need AIDS prevention information, motivation and behavioral skills to change behavior," he said. "Because most high school-based AIDS education programs consist of AIDS information only, they have little chance of working."

Students in each of the three intervention programs will receive information about AIDS, will be motivated to practice abstinence or, if they are sexually active, to practice AIDS prevention behavior. They will be taught behavioral skills such as how to negotiate safer sex, how to exit an unsafe sexual situation, and how to use a condom.

The interventions will differ in terms of the role teachers play and the role peers play, Fisher said.

"We will try to determine through these interventions whether students are more receptive to peers or teachers in the intervention process," he said.

Fisher joined the UConn faculty in 1975. His work on AIDS risk dynamics and on theoretically based AIDS prevention interventions is known throughout the world. Fisher has received more than $4 million in grants for his research on AIDS prevention since 1989.

In 1994, he was one of several scientists invited by the Centers for Disease Control to evaluate all U.S. AIDS prevention programs.

Much of his work has been done with William A. Fisher, a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario. "People Like Us," a video they designed to motivate young adults to practice safer sex, has received six international awards and is widely used in AIDS education programs.

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