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Adolescent Understanding of STD Transmission Greater than Public Health Messages Assume, Pitt Study Finds

 
PITTSBURGH, June 20, 2012 – A University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study reports that adolescents understand how sexually transmitted diseases (STD) occur, and they actively attempt to reduce their risk but do so by developing ineffective practices. The findings are reported online this week in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.
 
“In 2006, we recruited 37 black adolescents from two rural North Carolina counties to participate in focus groups exploring adolescent understanding of how primary prevention strategies reduce STD transmission, described common barriers to the adoption of prevention strategies, and identified risk reduction strategies adolescents commonly employ,” said Aletha Y. Akers, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Pitt. “What we found is adolescents understand how STDs are transmitted but consider primary prevention strategies like abstinence and consistent condom use unlikely or difficult to implement.”
 
According to Dr. Akers, the adolescents interviewed reported developing their own strategies to reduce their STD risk, which included indirect partner assessments like evaluating a person’s physical appearance, eye contact and body language. The girls who were interviewed often used regular STD testing as a way to fact-check their partners’ faithfulness. As long as they remained STD-free, they felt they could trust their partners’ commitment.
 
“This study is incredibly important because it shows us a disconnect between adolescents and the public health messages put forth,” said Dr. Akers. “We need to identify whatever misconceptions about STD transmission they may have and correct them. The adolescents we spoke with consider having sex at their age normal and abstinence unlikely for teenagers. With this information in mind, we need to change our messaging and provide tools that can be implemented to help adolescents think more critically about their choices.”
 
Dr. Akers and her colleagues focused on rural African-American adolescents for this study because their rates of early sexual initiation and STDs are among the highest in the country. Each year, approximately 9.1 million new cases of STDs are diagnosed among 15- to 24-year-olds. 
 
This study was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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