20 May 1999

British Adolescents Need Government Help

Research has found that British teenagers have the worst sexual health in Western Europe. In addition they have the highest pregnancy rate and are more likely to have used illicit drugs, factors that are symptomatic of a wider malaise in British adolescents. The study was reported in the current edition of the British Medical Journal by Professor Martin McKee.

In their paper Dr Angus Nicoll and colleagues from the Public Health Laboratory Service in London and Cardiff report that the sexual health of adolescents in England and Wales worsened quite significantly between 1995-6. In 1996 teenage females accounted for 20 per cent of all pregnancy terminations and nine per cent of births. Girls aged 16-19 years had the highest rates of gonorrhoea, genital chlamydia infection and warts, of all women. These findings, not surprisingly, suggest substantial sexual ill health among teenagers in England and Wales and they say that sexual health should be more of a priority.

Prof McKee suggests that the problem is wider than sexual health and cites teenage drug taking, smoking and drinking as other areas of concern, particularly when British teenagers' behaviour is compared with that of their Western European counterparts.

British teenagers may fair badly due to poor education amongst those teenagers in lower socio-economic groups. Also, more families in the UK live in poverty than in the rest of the European Union and British families spend the least amount of time together, due to British parents working the longest hours in Europe

The author says that to date the UK has tackled teenage behavioural problems on an isolated basis:- a drugs 'tsar' to co-ordinate action on illicit drugs; a health policy which aims to reduce rates of teenage smoking and adolescent drinking is moving up the government agenda under pressure from senior police officers. However, what is needed is a more widespread approach to tackle the general malaise, says McKee and he welcomes the move by the UK government's social exclusion unit to tackle the complexities derived from the interaction between poverty, low educational achievement and health.