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Fewer U.S. High School Students Engage in Risky Behaviors

But survey finds a discouraging lack of progress among Hispanic children

WEDNESDAY, June 4 (HealthDay News) -- Hispanic high school students are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors, including sexual intercourse, drug use, and suicide than white or black teens, U.S. health officials said Wednesday.

While there have been substantial improvements in many behaviors among high school students, Hispanic students remain at higher risk for some risky sexual behaviors than their black and white counterparts, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This new report tells us that while large numbers of high school students continue to engage in behaviors that place their health at risk, the percentage of students engaging in many of these risk behaviors is lower today than it was in the early 1990s," Howell Wechsler, the CDC's director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health, said during a teleconference.

"However, our Hispanic students remain at greater risk than white and black students for certain health-related behaviors and have not matched the progress made over time by black and white students in reducing some sexual risk behaviors," Wechsler said.

Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States. Hispanics make up 17 percent of the population aged 15 to 19 and about 20 percent of the population under 5 years old, Wechsler noted.

According to the report, 2007 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the percentage of black students who engaged in sexual intercourse dropped from 82 percent in 1991 to 66 percent in 2007. And black students who'd had sex with four or more partners also declined, from 43 percent in 1991 to 28 percent in 2007.

Among white students, those having sexual intercourse dropped from 50 percent in 1991 to 44 percent in 2007. And the number of white teens having four or more partners also dropped, from 15 percent in 1991 to 12 percent in 2007.

However, among Hispanic high school students there has been no significant change in sexual behaviors. In 1991, 53 percent of Hispanic teens reported having had intercourse, and in 2007 that number was 52 percent. And 17 percent of Hispanic high school students reported having sex with four or more partners in both 1991 and 2007, Wechsler said.

The numbers of high school students who were taught about HIV hasn't changed significantly among Hispanics, but did increase among black and white students, the survey found.

Hispanic teens were also more likely than black or white students to have attempted suicide, or use cocaine, heroin or ecstasy. Hispanics were also more likely to be in a car with a driver who had been drinking. They were also more likely to not eat for a day or more in an attempt to lose weight, compared with their black and white counterparts, Wechsler said.

Hispanic teens were also more likely to stay away from school because of safety concerns than black or white students. "It is particularly troubling to see that our Hispanic students appeared to be at a disadvantage in terms of the safety of their school campuses," Wechsler said.

Hispanic teens were also more likely to be offered or sold illegal drugs or drink at school, Wechsler said.

"It is alarming that the [survey] documents multiple disparities for Latino youth in America and that few of these disparities have changed since the last survey in 2005," Dr. Glenn Flores, a professor of pediatrics and public health at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Children's Medical Center, in Dallas, said during the teleconference.

While members of all racial and ethnic groups engage in risky health behaviors, the plight of Hispanic students is particularly disturbing, he said.

"Latino youth are more likely to report feeling sad or hopeless, at 36 percent overall and 42 percent in Latino girls," Flores said. "Latino teens have the highest rate of having made a suicide plan and actually attempting suicide."

The survey did find some encouraging trends among Hispanic teens. They were more likely to wear seat belts and use condoms in 2007 than they were in the 1990s. They were also less likely to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, use drugs such as marijuana and methamphetamines, or ride with a driver who'd been drinking alcohol.

The CDC conducts the survey every two years. In 2007, more than 14,000 high school students participated, drawn from 39 states and 22 urban school districts.

More information

To read the full report, visit the CDC.

SOURCES: June 4, 2008, teleconference with Howell Wechsler, Ed.D., M.P.H., director, Division of Adolescent and School Health, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Glenn Flores, M.D., professor of pediatrics and public health, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Children's Medical Center, Dallas; CDC report, 2007 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey

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