By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News Online
Every day seems to bring a new alert over soaring rates of sexually transmitted infections - and young people may be most at risk.
Condoms can protect against pregnancy and infections
BBC News Online asks whether giving teenagers easy access to condoms is proving effective in the battle to safeguard the UK's sexual health.
Family planning services argue young people will always experiment sexually and it is better to equip them with advice and the protection of condoms.
But some campaigners argue condoms encourage young people to take chances.
Teenagers' access to condoms has probably never been greater - and yet government figures continue to show record figures of infections in the population as a whole.
Overall, 708,083 people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were diagnosed with an STI in 2003.
Sexual health clinics warn they are struggling to cope - and young people may be those at most risk.
A British Medical Association report found six out of ten 16- to 24-year-olds admit to not using condoms and rates of certain sexually transmitted diseases are soaring in this age group.
Family planning organisations believe a policy combining sex education with condom use is the best way forward.
HOW THE C-CARD WORKS
Young person registers at a designated point - usually somewhere like a youth centre
Anonymity is preserved but each teenager is seen by a trained adviser
Advice is given on sexual relationships and safer sex
The adviser shows the correct way to put on a condom
The C-card is issued, giving access to free condoms, if the young person wants it
Child protection issues may be picked up during the discussion
One such initiative is the C-card condom scheme - whereby young people are given sexual health advice and a 'credit card' entitling them to free condoms.
The C-card programme operates from places like youth centres, which are convenient for young people and less daunting than a family planning or sexual health clinic.
Middlesbrough, County Durham, Lincolnshire and parts of Scotland and Wales are among 50-odd areas to operate the scheme, with Calderdale in West Yorkshire about to join too.
There is no lower age limit on who can use the service - but Calderdale Primary Care Trust said they expected the majority to be about 16.
Melissa Dear, a spokeswoman for the Family Planning Association (FPA), said they backed the C-card as a way for young people to get condoms with advice.
She said: "They can go to a vending machine to get them whenever they want - so to provide them in a location convenient to them, where they can access advice from a health professional, can only be beneficial."
But Norman Wells, director of research group Family and Youth Concern, believes government efforts to cut teenage pregnancy have made matters worse.
He said: "Sex education and the availability of contraception to young people have failed to reduce the teenage conception rate.
Some young people are reluctant to go to GPs for condoms
"But what we have seen is a massive increase in the incidence of sexually transmitted infections."
He said the emphasis on condoms lulled young people "into a false sense of security" - without necessarily warning them of the risks of inexpert use.
"Condoms are not the infallible answer to pregnancy and STIs," he said.
His organisation would like sex education to place more value on restraint, abstinence and marriage.
The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, which is opposed to the use of contraception, also recommends abstinence outside marriage.
It states: "Sexually transmitted diseases give a further reason why casual sex is irresponsible and contrary to human dignity."
Hugh Henry, education officer for the Church's Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics, said the government must start backing "abstinence-only sex education programmes".
He said: "The current approach to preventing teenage pregnancy and STDs is not working.
"In parts of the country where aggressive, contraception-focused sex education has been tried, we've seen high rates of teenage pregnancy and STDs.
'Head in the sand'
"There is evidence that promoting sexual self-respect may be more effective than assuming people 'must' have sex and can only make it 'safer'."
But Marie Stopes International said a condom and sex advice giveaway run through teenage magazine Sugar had shown how much young people needed a comprehensive sex education.
"We had 20,000 donated condoms and they went very, very quickly," said spokesman Tony Kerridge.
"We had teenagers emailing us to say how great it was that we were trying to promote this because it was the kind of information they desperately needed and couldn't find elsewhere."
The campaign provoked only a handful of complaints from parents, he said, and helped inform thousands of young people on proper condom use.
"We can moralise about the rights and wrongs of young people having sex but the reality is that they are - and you either stick your head in the sand or you try to do something about it."