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CDC HIV/AIDS/Viral Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update
Many Teenage Girls Underestimate STD Risk: Study
Merritt McKinney
October 29, 2003
Reuters Health (10.15.03) - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Teenage girls who have unprotected sex and engage in other risky sexual behavior may underestimate their odds of contracting an STD, a recent study shows.

"Most young women in this study, who were all sexually active and who demonstrated risk for STDs, did not perceive that they were at risk for infection," said Dr. Kathleen A. Ethier of CDC.

Researchers tracked 209 young women, mostly African-American or Latina, over the course of 18 months. During that time, almost one out of four adolescent girls in the study were diagnosed with chlamydia or gonorrhea, even though "most of those had predicted that there was little or no chance of that happening," investigators reported.

About 89 percent of the girls felt they were at little to no risk of contracting an STD. However, 74 percent reported engaging in risky sex, having symptoms of an STD or having had an STD in the past. Each girl's risk factors for STDs, including unprotected sex and multiple partners, had little effect on her perception of risk, according to the study, "Adolescent Women Underestimate Their Susceptibility to Sexually Transmitted Infections," published in Sexually Transmitted Infections (2003; 79:408-411).

"Adolescents may either be uninformed about or ignoring their risk for sexually transmitted diseases," according to study leader Ethier. She said young people may know about risk factors for STDs but not connect those facts with their own behavior. Even when they engage in risky behavior, "many adolescents still feel that it can't happen to them," she noted. "That is clearly a dangerous assumption." Why the young women in the study did not think they were at risk remains unclear, according to Ethier. Possible explanations include their relationships with male partners and the attitudes of people in their communities, she said, although she noted that the study did not examine those factors.

"We need to know more about why adolescents are not accurately assessing their risk for infection," Ethier stated. Without a clear understanding of the problem, it will be difficult to design programs to tackle it, she said.