"For the most part kids learn about sexually transmitted diseases when they are getting diagnosed with them," said Julie Downs, lead author of the study and a member of the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon.
The results came from a survey of 300 adolescent girls in the Pittsburgh area. The researchers gave the girls a test to gauge their knowledge of eight STDs: HIV/AIDS, chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, genital warts, hepatitis B, trichomoniasis and syphilis. Girls who reported having been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease knew more about that particular disease than other girls, but did not know more about the other diseases. On average, with the exception of HIV/AIDS, the teens did not know many basic facts about STDs.
While it is important for teens to learn about HIV/AIDS, they are far more likely to contract other STDs, according to Downs. "Our schools have decided to focus on AIDS, and that has come at a cost. Teens just aren't being taught about these other diseases, and so they may come away with a false sense of confidence," she said.
The study's findings are troubling because teenagers who know little about STDs are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior and to delay the treatment of STDs. And the consequences are severe. Genital herpes, for example, cannot be cured. Genital warts can render a woman more susceptible to cervical cancer, and chlamydia can lead to infertility.
A 2004 study, involving the same group of adolescent girls, found that those who viewed an interactive sex education DVD created by Carnegie Mellon researchers were more likely to become abstinent than girls who did not see the DVD. This latest study was co-authored by Wandi Bruine de Bruin and Baruch Fischhoff of the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon, and Pamela J. Murray, director of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.