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Safe Sex Classes Help Pre-Teens Avoid Risky Behavior

Course effectiveness shown in South Africa townships

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South African sixth graders who took Western-style sex education classes were less likely to have unprotected sex, according to new research.
South African sixth graders who took Western-style sex education classes were less likely to have unprotected sex, according to new research.

New research suggests brief sex education courses reduce risky sexual behaviors — and the threat of sexually transmitted disease — among South African sixth graders.

Researchers had wondered whether a curriculum based on a Western model might seem irrelevant to kids in poor township schools.

What they found is that those who took the sex education class reported they were less likely to have unprotected sex during the following year, according to lead researcher John Jemmott of the University of Pennsylvania.

"In addition, we reduced recent sex — that is, sex in the past three months — and the incidence of multiple partners — reporting that you had two partners in the past three months," Jemmott said. "And unprotected sex as well as multiple partners are important risk factors for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV."

Jemmott and his colleagues conducted the study in South Africa's Eastern Cape province, among sixth-graders in urban schools in Mdantsane and rural schools in Berlin, near East London.

Students attended six two-hour sessions aimed at reducing sexual risk behaviors using role-playing, games, and discussions. A matching group of students was the control: they took a similar course focusing on other health issues.

The youngsters in the study were typically around 12, but some were as young as nine. Jemmott says that's not too young for sex education.

"You want to begin at the earliest possible time, so we did want to begin with young people and talk to them about practicing safer sex or abstinence as a way to prevent sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV," he said in a telephone interview.

The impact can be seen in the numbers: about four percent of the children in the control group said they had sexual intercourse in the following year, about twice as many as those who had the sex education course.

University of Pennsylvania researcher John Jemmott says there has been skepticism about the effectiveness of a course developed for use in the very different American culture. But he says this study indicates it can have an impact. "And there've been questions about whether these theories — which some would say are Western theories — would apply in southern Africa. And this study suggests they would apply."

Jemmott's study is published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, a journal published by the American Medical Association.  

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