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Opinion, Comment & Reviews
  Teenage sexual health and sex education
By Maxine Lattimer

The government's Social Exclusion Unit is due to publish a report on tackling teenage pregnancy very soon. Family planning and 'family values' groups alike are keen to see the content of the report. However, it seems to have been delayed indefinitely and this has led to media discussion and speculation on the issue. One such story arose from a Public Health Laboratory Service report in the British Medical Journal, which claimed that British teenagers have the worst sexual health in Western Europe. Dr Angus Nicoll and colleagues from the PHLS said there was "substantial sexual ill-health" among young people. The report said that girls aged 16-19 in England and Wales had higher rates of gonorrhoea, genital warts and chlamydia than any other group of women and the second highest rate of herpes. It claimed that the incidence of gonorrhoea had increased by a third in teenagers between 1995 and 1996.

They conceded that there is no accurate way of comparing levels of sexual disease across Europe but said that teenage pregnancy is a good indicator. According to the report, British girls also have the highest teenage pregnancy rates, high abortion levels and are more likely to use drugs than many of their European counterparts. One abortion in five involves a teenage girl and 9 per cent of births are to teenagers. In 1996 there were 86,174 teenage pregnancies, of which more than 30,000 resulted in abortions. Abortions among girls under 16 rose by 14.5 per cent between 1995 and 1996 and by 12.5 per cent in teenagers aged 16-19. Britain's teenage pregnancy rate is seven times as high as Holland, four times that of France and twice the German level. Dr Nicoll said: "There is a major burden of sexual ill-health amongst young people in this country that is going to leave a legacy of infertility, cancer of the cervix and unwanted pregnancy." A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "The Government takes this issue very seriously and has set up an integrated approach to tackle the problem." But still no Social Exclusion Unit report.

The reporting of the PHLS claims led to calls from family planning campaigners for sex education to be taught in primary schools. Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat spokesman on health, who introduced a Private Member's Bill last week to provide earlier sex education for all children, said: "This research proves everything that I have been saying about the appalling level of young people's sexual health in Britain." And a spokeswoman for the Brook Advisory Centre service, which provides family planning for youngsters, said: "One of the major problems is the lack of sex education in this country compared to the rest of Europe. "People who complain that we have had sex education in this country for 30 years and that it has not made a difference don't know what sex education is like in our schools. "There is no education at primary level and in secondary schools it is just about biology and how to make a baby." She added: "What we need is good sex education from primary age up, with lessons on how to cope with emotions, relationships and certain situations. "We also need to convince teenagers that they can have access to confidential family planning services so they can prevent pregnancy and sexual disease."

These calls produced the usual response from the likes of Valerie Riches from Family and Youth Concern and Ann Widdecombe, Shadow Health Secretary. Valerie Riches said: "The problem is society itself, which is crumbling, and the media and other campaigners who are sending false messages to young people. "We have had sex education for many years and for many years it has not worked. "This is because young people cannot cope with the information they are being given - they get the message that they can have sex, but they cannot process the information about prevention and cause and effect. "We need to have a complete reversal of the current situation and do what they are doing in some parts of the US, where teenagers are taught that complete abstinence is absolutely vital to prevent unwanted pregnancies and diseases, and also for their emotional development." Ann Widdecombe commented: "We have never had so much sex education and free contraception in Britain, yet this study shows we have one of the worst records of sexual health amongst young people. "We will be much better off promoting an atmosphere in which young people are encouraged to consider whether or not they should be sexually active at a relatively early age at all, rather than instructing them in the hows, whys and whens. "

We are all still waiting for the SEU report to come out with its recommendations. One thing is clear, if the government really want to make a difference it must come off the fence and support not just sex education, but sexual health services for young people, including abortion. With an issue like this there can be no 'middle ground'. The government can either line up with the likes of Family and Youth Concern and the Daily Mail readers who think teenagers having sex is a problem. Or they can support those who accept that teenage sex is normal part of modern life and instead argue for more and better services.
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