Report: High schoolers’ AIDS risk down, but ‘more work to do’

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U.S. high school students are often delaying sex, limiting their sexual activity and using condoms, but their risk for sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS remains too high, federal officials said Tuesday.

Overall, the trends are “good news, but we still have more work to do,” said Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and Tuberculosis Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), speaking at the major international AIDS conference being held this week in Washington.

“It’s clear that to realize our goal of an AIDS-free generation, parents, schools and communities will need to intensify efforts to ensure that every young person in America knows about HIV and how to prevent infection,” he said.

In its report, released in conjunction with the 10th International AIDS Conference, the CDC found that there had been a decade’s worth of positive changes on four sexual risk behaviors among students in grades 9 through 12.

In two areas — teen “sexual debut” and number of partners of sexually experienced teens — the rates fell significantly in the 1990s and stabilized in the 2000s, said Laura Kann, chief of the surveillance and evaluation research branch in the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH).

Specifically, less than half of all high school students (47 percent) reported having sexual intercourse in 2011, down from 54 percent in 1991, while the portion of sexually experienced teens who had had four or more sex partners fell to 15 percent in 2011, compared to 19 percent a decade earlier.

In a third area -— current sexual activity among sexually experienced teens — the trend was also down, from 38 percent in 1991 to 34 percent in 2011.

The strongest improvement was among condom use during the respondent’s most recent sexual intercourse: In 2011, 60 percent of sexually experienced teens said they used a condom, compared to 46 percent in 1991.

Despite these “great strides,” researchers said, several measures have stayed the same in recent years, and black and Hispanic teens were reporting higher levels of risk behaviors than white teens.

“We need to accelerate progress among African-American youth” because “they remain the most heavily affected by HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases,” said Dr. Fenton.

Young, black gay and bisexual men “are at especially high risk for HIV, and need to be a major focus for our prevention efforts,” he said. Moreover, given “the persistent lack of progress among Hispanic students,” the nation needs to “find ways again to jump-start progress among all youth overall.”

The data, released Tuesday, are compiled through the CDC’s biennial survey which in 2011 was taken by 15,000 students in public and private high schools. A limitation of the study is that it misses teen dropouts, including those who may be at risk for the very behaviors covered in the survey.

Some of these teen sexual risk behaviors are included in the federal government’s “Healthy People 2020,” a 10-year agenda that sets goals to improve health of Americans. For instance, the Healthy People 2020 report calls for 10 percent improvements in the number of teens who delay sexual debut until after age 17, and the number of teens who receive sex education on how to “say no” to sex, how to use birth control, and how to avoid sexual disease, including HIV/AIDS.

“All of the sexual-health education that we work with state and local agencies to support encourages young people to avoid sexual intercourse,” said Howell Wechsler, director of DASH at the CDC. Delaying sex, for instance, “is a very effective HIV prevention” method, he said.

“At the same time, we want to give young people the tools they need to stay healthy, so at the same time they’ll learn about condoms and contraceptives,” said Mr. Wechsler.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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