LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Among teenagers the rates for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are going up. Prevention messages don't seem to be getting through to young people. The statistics raise questions about the approaches used to keep teens from engaging in risky sexual behavior. NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.
BRENDA WILSON: For much of the 1990s high school students put off having sex, according to Lori Gavin, a researcher with the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ms. LORI GAVIN (Researcher, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): You see overall patterns, through the '90s and early 2000s, of general improvements in the sexual reproductive health of our young people.
WILSON: That was especially true for younger teens. If, for example, you looked at surveys of African American teens whose birth rates have always been the highest, sexual activity dropped from 59.3 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 2007. And most teens who had sex said they used a condom. As a result, teen births and abortions declined, the steepest occurring among black adolescents.
But in 2006 something happened. Adolescent birth rates rose two years in a row. The largest increase was among black teens.
Ms. GAVIN: You know, there's been a lot of talk what does this increased teen birth rate mean - these last two years. And I think the fact that we're starting to see again some trends in these other outcomes this is a reinforcement that there might really be something very real going on.
WILSON: The other outcomes include continuing high rates of sexually transmitted infections. One million young people infected in 2006. While the country became embroiled in controversy over sex education and abstinence-only programs, some experts say that research on young people's sexual behavior lagged. They say programs have not kept up with teens, particularly their use of technology.
Irwin Royster does outreach for Planned Parenthood at the Ophelia Egypt Center in one of Washington, D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods.
Mr. IRWIN ROYSTER (Planned Parenthood): This is what the youth are reporting to us. First of all, I don't have access to prophylactics. Ok? There is no one teaching me in school how to protect myself. I didn't learn about this in school.
WILSON: Royster says the kids are getting information from their peers, from videos and they spend a lot of time at the center on the computer. But what they're learning is not always helpful. He turned to 20-year-old Pierre Whiting and 19-year-old Ivan Bradley to ask them what they see going on.
Mr. ROYSTER: You guys, I would say over the course of five years do you think teen pregnancy has decreased or increased?
Mr. PIERRE WHITING: Increased.
Mr. IVAN BRADLEY: Increased.
Mr. WHITING: People are pregnant everyday.
Mr. ROYSTER: Everyday?
Mr. BRADLEY: Yeah, and some of them think it's like - if they see one of their friends pregnant that they've got to get pregnant, because they think it's like a little cool way to fit in.
Mr. ROYSTER: What about HIV?
Mr. BRADLEY: I'd say for HIV I say it decreased.
Mr. WHITING: It decreased.
Mr. ROYSTER: Decreased?
WILSON: Actually, no. Rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections among young black men are increasing. The young men Royster works with are a mixture of sophistication and misinformation. With repetition Irwin Royster tries to drive home the facts.
Mr. ROYSTER: Now, do they understand the correlation between unprotected sex -and we know that you've had unprotected sex if you had a baby - and HIV?
Mr. WHITING:: Oh, I think they don't get the point.
Mr. ROYSTER: They don't get the point?
Mr. WHITING:: Mm-hmm.
WILSON: And he shows them other worlds that they don't want to miss out on.
Mr. ROYSTER: We look beyond just teen pregnancy prevention. We look at goal setting - where teens see themselves five, ten, fifteen years from now. We're going to make sure that all of our kids have access to college and to have the ability to go away.
WILSON: Royster wants policy makers to know that sexual and reproductive health problems get in the way of so many young people's future and they haven't gone away.
Brenda Wilson, NPR News.
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WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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