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Britain teens face obesity infertility { December 9 2003 }

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Health news
December 09, 2003

Teens face obesity and infertility
By Nigel Hawkes, Health Editor

BRITAIN is breeding a generation of adults that will tend to be infertile, obese and prone to mental illness, the British Medical Association (BMA) said yesterday.

Tomorrow’s adults are overweight, smoke and drink too much, and have rising levels of sexual infection and mental illness. But despite that, schools and medical services are failing to provide for adolescents, the BMA says in a new report.

Medicine focuses on children and old people, missing out adolescents altogether. There are very few consultants who specialise in adolescent medicine, and one of them, Russell Viner, of University College Hospital and Great Ormond Street Hospital, yesterday called the lack of such services a scandal.

Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, said: “Young people in Britain are increasingly likely to be overweight, indulge in binge drinking, have a sexually transmitted infection and suffer mental health problems.

“It is high time we provided education and healthcare services that target the specific needs of young people. We need to ensure that young people do not fall in the gap between services for children and those designed for adults.”

The report says that most of the problems and behaviour it identifies are shared by adolescents from differing backgrounds. Poor eating habits, smoking and drug use, behavioural and emotional difficulties, and teenage pregnancy, however, are all more common in poorer families.

The figures in the report paint a picture of a generation ill-served by education, health services and family. The proportion who are overweight rose by a fifth between 1994 and 1998; two out of five boys and three out of ten girls take too little exercise.

Among 11 to 15-year-old children, 11 per cent of girls and 9 per cent of boys smoke regularly. By the age of 15, nearly one in four adolescents is a smoker. Habits developed in adolescence are usually carried into adulthood, Dr Nathanson said, and become hard to break.

Twenty-four per cent of the 11-15 age group have had an alcoholic drink in the past week. In 2002 the average weekly consumption in that group was 10.5 units, double that in 1990. The proportion of the age group taking drugs is put at 11 per cent, with cannabis by far the most common.

As many as one in ten girls aged 16 to 19 may be infected with chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease which can make sufferers infertile.

Teenage pregnancy rates, though they have shown signs of a fall, remain the highest in Europe. Britain has a poor record of sex education, the report says, and the impact of the “safe sex” campaign of the 1980s has lessened.

Provision of genito-urinary clinics to treat sexually transmited disease, once one of the NHS’s best services, had been allowed to decline. The target of getting an appointment at a clinic within 48 hours was widely missed, Dr Nathanson said. At some clinics patients had to wait up to eight weeks.

“Access to services is key. Do we really expect a 15-year-old boy with gonorrhoea to take time off school to visit his GP and talk about his sex life?” she said. “We need school-based services, drop-in clinics, services that are approachable for young people. Fear is the greatest obstacle preventing access to treatment.”

Dr Nathanson said that teenagers’ behaviour posed “an extraordinary threat to an entire generation”. She added: “It is also a threat to all of us. How can the NHS be funded to deal with that kind of health crisis? We can’t expect young people to think that far into the future. We have to do some of the thinking for them.”

The report calls for a planned approach, with a number of agencies and government departments contributing to a possible solution.

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