Sexually active young women often underestimate STD risk

Durham, N.C.--Most sexually active single women believe they are at low risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), but a new study says their risk profiles are in fact similar to those women in higher risk populations.

Researchers from Duke University Medical Center, the University of Washington, Seattle, and Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound say their study highlights the need for health care clinicians to spend more time with young women identifying risk factors, explaining consequences of unprotected sex and promoting condom use. The study was published in the August 2003 issue of Preventive Medicine. The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Sexually transmitted diseases are a significant health problem for young women. Nationally, the rates of human papillomavirus (HPV), genital herpes and chlamydia are particularly high for women ages 15 to 24. STDs increase the risk of infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, negative birth outcomes and chronic pain. Recent research indicates that HPV may be a cause of cervical cancer.

"Even though they are having unprotected sex, most young women would say they are at low-risk of contracting an STD," said Kimberly Yarnall, M.D., associate clinical professor in the department of community and family medicine, and lead author of the study. "Some don't see STDs as a big deal and are desensitized to the risk."

In the study, the researchers surveyed 1,210 women by phone about demographic characteristics and risk behaviors such as episodes of binge drinking, history of vaginal sex and STDs, perceived STD risk, overall condom use and partner-specific condom use. Women in the study were sexually active, unmarried, not pregnant, and heterosexual, between the ages 18 and 25. The researchers included both students and non-students in the analysis.

"Most research into condom use and STD risk focuses on populations considered 'high ri

Contact: Amy Austell
Duke University Medical Center

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