USF leads discussion on safer teen sex

Special to The Oracle

When talking with teenagers about the risks of sex, it takes more than facts and figures to truly convey the gravity of the message. 

USF Health was recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) last month for its effectiveness in reducing sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancy in girls ages 15-19. 

The Health Improvement Project for Teens (HIPTeens) was developed by Dianne Morrison-Beedy, USF Health senior associate vice president and dean of the USF College of Nursing, along with her co-investigators,  to address the health care needs of young girls.

“I’ve been a women’s health care nurse practitioner for a long time,” she said. “Teen girls in my practice kept coming back with the same issues: STIs and possible pregnancy.”

Morrison-Beedy said the program was designed with the teens in mind. 

“They needed to practice so they have a strong voice in relationships,” she said. “Not only do they understand their risks, they think ahead of their risks.”

HIPTeens informed the teens about HIV and STIs and taught communication skills to express their needs in relationships.

In groups averaging roughly eight teens, a professionally trained group leader guided the patients in two-hour sessions over four weeks. Morrison-Beedy said teens developed a peer support network to promote good choices.

“They asked, ‘What else can we do together?’ They loved being able to talk about issues and having the group leader there as a sounding board,” Morrison-Beedy said.

HIPTeens proved to be statistically effective, as a study of over 700 teenage girls – all of whom who had been sexually active prior to the study – found those who participated in the project practiced safer sex.

According to the study, abstinence rates went up while their number of sex partners went down and pregnancy rates among those studied decreased 50 percent. 

Considering the dramatic decreases in high school graduation rates and increases in poverty linked to teen pregnancy, Morrison-Beedy said these findings were significant. 

“This wasn’t something you had to go into a hospital or medical practice for. It’s in the community,” she said. “The research evidence was so strong that it was proven as a program that works.”

The CDC and HHS evaluated the study to see how much behavior change was really shown and confirmed HIPTeens’ effectiveness.

Today, STI, especially among young people, is one of the greatest health concerns for U.S.
citizens. According to CDC data, there are around 20 million new STIs in the U.S. every year, with half of all new infections occurring in the 15-19 age group. 

From 2002 to 2012, reported cases of STIs nearly doubled in both Hillsborough County and the state of Florida, with an increase of about 7,000 reported cases among young people, according to the Florida Department of Health. 

Versie Johnson-Mallard, an associate professor at the USF College of Nursing, whose research focuses on sexual and reproductive health, believes Americans are seeing these kinds of statistics because teens are only getting part of the

“The number of sexually active teens is high, but pregnancy rates are down among adolescents,” she said. “However, STI rates are high. They are getting the birth control message, but they are not getting the safer sex message, using a barrier method for protection.”

Morrison-Beedy said she hopes the national recognition will allow HIPTeens to expand, reaching a broader audience.

Schools and community agencies have inquired about HIPTeens, which Morrison-Beedy said is a good sign that it’s brought the conversation of sexual health to the forefront.

“It is absolutely critical,” she said. “All of these girls are at a higher risk, and this is a program we know is effective. We haven’t solved the problem yet, but this is a step in the right direction.”