THURSDAY, Dec. 20, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Sex education programs do work to help discourage many teens from becoming sexually active before age 15, according to data released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Formal programs -- such as those presented in schools and church groups -- did appear to delay onset of sexual activity. For example, teen girls in the nationally representative sample were 59 percent less likely to start having sex before age 15 if they had received sex education, while teen boys were 71 percent less likely, the study found.
"We were obviously hoping to find that sex education is effective. We're glad to see the strong associations," said lead author Trisha Mueller, a CDC epidemiologist. She emphasized that in order to be successful, sex education should take place before young people become sexually active.
Mueller's team also learned that teen boys who attended school were almost three times more likely to use contraception if they had attended a sex education program, compared to those who had not.
However, attendance at a sex education class did not seem to impact girls' use of birth control, the survey found.
The survey did not differentiate between programs that emphasized abstinence and those that educated about contraception. Instead, researchers focused only on whether the teens had ever attended any sex education program in a formal setting, such as school or church.
The study was expected to be published in the January issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
According to earlier, 2005 data available from the CDC, 47 percent of high school students said they had already had sex. Of those who were currently involved in a sexual relationship, one-third said they were not using a condom.
Curious about the effectiveness of sexual education on these behaviors, Mueller and colleagues examined data from more than 2,000 teen boys and girls between 15 and 19 years of age who participated in the door-to-door 2002 National Survey of Family Growth.
"Formal sex education is beneficial for youth who are considered to be at-risk," noted Mueller, who cited as an example the 88 percent reduced risk of initiation sex before age 15 among urban black females who had received any sex education. Urban black teen girls who were still in school at the time of the survey had a 91 percent reduced risk of initiation sex before age 15, the survey found.
The research also showed that boys living in single-parent households were more likely to delay sex past age 15 if they had attended a sex education class.
Mueller and her team were interested in teen sexual decision-making before and after the age of 15, because the federal governments' Healthy People 2010 initiative treats 15 as a dividing line. Healthy People 2010 sets a wide array of health goals for states and communities to achieve over the first decade of this century. One of its objectives: to reduce the number of teens under age 15 who are having sex for the first time.
"First and foremost, the report makes clear that the timing of sex education is quite important. That is, providing sex education to young people at an early age seems quite important in helping delay sexual activity," said Bill Albert, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
The researchers said the study could not explain why sex education might have a stronger effect in delaying sex among teen boys and black girls, but Albert offered an explanation.
"It is the case that declines in sexual activity among teen boys, as opposed to girls, and African-American teen girls, as opposed to other racial/ethnic groups, have been much more dramatic over the past decade. This may, in part, explain why the effect of sex education seems stronger. It may also be that concern about HIV/AIDs may be particularly strong among these two groups," said Albert.
However, certain sub-populations of teens deserve further research, said Mueller. The data suggested that both rural, white teen girls and white or Hispanic teen girls who had dropped out of school might be more likely to have sex before age 15 if they had sex education, but Mueller said the number of people in those groups in the study was so small that the results could be a statistical fluke.
"They were kind of opposite findings," said Mueller, who acknowledged that "some subgroups may not benefit from sex ed the same way as the larger group of teens."
This research comes in the wake of data released Dec. 5 by the CDC showing that the annual rate of births to teens has increased for the first time in 14 years. Between 2005 and 2006, the birth rate for girls 15 to 19 rose 3 percent -- from 40.5 births per 1,000 in 2005 to 41.9 per 1,000 in 2006.
Considering both studies, Albert said, "The early wins may have been won. Future efforts may well have to be more intense, focused, and creative if the nation is to make continued progress in reducing teen pregnancy and childbearing. Put another way, yesterday's way of doing business will no longer suffice."
To find more data about teenagers and sexual decision-making, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.