Data Provide Insight to Improve Adolescents' Health

Content From: Jonathan Mermin, M.D., M.P.H., RADM and Assistant Surgeon General, USPHS, Director, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and PreventionPublished: November 05, 20154 min read


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Young adults face the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the United States. Here are the eye-opening facts:
  • As compared to other groups, women aged 15 to 24 experience a disproportionate number of chlamydia and gonorrhea infections - many of which go undiagnosed. Left untreated, these infections can lead to serious consequences, including infertility. Every year more than 24,000 women in the US become infertile because of an STD many did not know they had.
  • One in four new HIV infections are in people aged 13 to 24. Yet, only 22 percent of sexually experienced high school students have ever been tested for HIV.
These facts demonstrate that young people need help navigating the path through a healthy adolescence. This is why preventing STDs and HIV among young people - as well as the risky behaviors that lead to them - is a top priority for CDC. But we can't stop what we don't understand.

That's why CDC reaches out to young people to collect vital information on their sexual health risks. In addition to tracking the occurrence of HIV and other STDs at national and state levels, we work with health and education agencies across the country to provide the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).
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For more than 20 years, the YRBS has provided an assessment of the health risks of our nation's high-school youth, collecting data from more than 2.6 million students over the years. In the spring of every odd-numbered year, anonymous surveys are distributed to students in a nationally representative sample of US public and private high schools. To ensure that the data are available to everyone involved in helping American youth stay healthy and safe, the results are published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) as well as on the YRBS website. Besides giving insight into risk behaviors associated with STDs, HIV, and unintended pregnancies, the YRBS includes data on violence, alcohol and other drug use, unhealthy dietary behaviors, and inadequate physical activity.
These results help parents, teachers, and other trusted adults better understand the challenges young people face and the issues for which they need guidance. For example, the 2013 YRBS survey data reported:
  • Almost half (47 percent) of high school students have had sexual intercourse.
  • One in five (22 percent) students drank alcohol or used drugs before last sexual intercourse.
  • One in seven (15 percent) students have had sexual intercourse with four or more people during their lifetime.
  • Four in ten (41 percent) students who had sexual intercourse in the previous three months did not use a condom the last time they had sex.
With a substantial proportion of American youth already sexually active, these data clearly speak to the need to reach them with clear, accurate information about HIV and STD testing and prevention.

Data from the YRBS are a valuable tool for helping parents, communities, health care providers, and schools take action to protect the health of our youth. Local school leaders can invest in programs tailored to their students' needs -- for exampleExit Disclaimer, by using these data, decision-makers can identify opportunities for student and teacher education and set priorities for improving health. CDC uses the data to guide communities in implementing and evaluating programs to reduce risk behaviors. The YRBS data also help federal, state, and local governments identify broader public health needs and track progress in meeting health goals. In addition, schools and community-based organizations use the information to develop new initiatives that help young people stay healthy. These efforts to monitor and reduce risks are essential to keeping youth out of harm's way.

CDC does more than provide data. It takes an active role in protecting the sexual health of youth by encouraging health care providers to address risk behaviors with their patients and improve STD screening and treatment as appropriate. CDC also builds partnerships with educators and community-based organizations to reach young people with the education, testing, and prevention services they need. At CDC, we use evidence-based approaches to connect youth to services tailored to their needs and information that helps them stay healthy. StreetConnect, for example, helps homeless youth - many of whom have mobile devices - connect to health clinics and shelters via a mobile app. Another program, Smart Connect, helps teens connect to teen-friendly health providers.

We all have a role to play in helping to protect the sexual health of our young people - youth can be more aware of the risks they face, and parents and schools can get the information they need to stay safe. Community organizations can reach at-risk youth and help connect them to prevention programs. Health care providers can offer STD screening so that young people who are infected get the care and treatment needed to minimize effects on their health.

To improve the health of the next generation of American teens, we must take full advantage of the data at our disposal today.

To find out more, visit CDC's Youth Online page.