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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 February 2008, 13:49 GMT
The teenage pregnancy challenge
By Clare Murphy
Health reporter, BBC News

Young people's access to contraception - including long-term options like implants - is to be widened as part of a multi-million-pound campaign.

Teenage mother
There are now fewer mothers this young than a few years ago

It is a last, major attempt by the government to achieve an ambitious target - set in 2000 - of cutting Britain's teenage pregnancy in half by 2010. How's it faring?

Seen by many as something of a national shame, Britain's teenage pregnancy rate is the highest in Western Europe.

Conceptions among under-18s have been falling in recent years, but the government's goal remains a very challenging one. In 1998, there were 46.6 per 1000, in 2005, the last year for which figures are available, it had dropped to 41.3.

This combined with the fact that the abortion rate for this group has risen, means there are now several thousand fewer teenage mothers.

But how you go about ensuring that trend continues - and indeed accelerates fairly rapidly - is a fraught issue.

Here and there

The figures in any event do not give a particularly accurate view of the very disparate situation across the country.

Southwark: 71.8
Barking and Dagenham: 64.5
Reading: 60.4
Bristol: 50.9

While affluent Wokingham saw just 20 per 1,000 teen pregnancies in 2005, the London borough of Southwark saw a whopping 71.8.

Yet surprising as it may be, this was remarkable success for the borough - which had managed to achieve a 17.5% decrease from 1998.

Wokingham: 20
Windsor: 20.7
Shropshire: 26.1
North Yorkshire: 26.7

Campaigners say falls like this are testament to a multi-pronged approach which involves "joined-up thinking" from all the available services.

"So yes, you have good sex education in schools, but you're also improving contraceptive services, going into schools, youth centres, wherever young people are - and crucially you have someone heading it with strong strategic leadership who understands that area," says Gill Frances, chair of the Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory Group.

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle - if you have one piece missing, you can't see what the picture is. And the money now on the table should increase the options further - GPs have shied away from prescribing implants because they are more expensive than the pill, but for some young people they would be a really good choice."

Wasting time

The doubters say that the problem with applauding the co-ordinated contraceptive approach for reducing the rate is that it ignores the fact that in some areas - Torbay for example - the same method has in fact led to an overall increase.

Improving education generally would be a much better place to start
Professor David Paton

"Pushing money into sex education and contraceptive services and then doing your best to advertise them is just a waste of money," says David Paton, a Nottingham University professor who has looked at the economics of teenage pregnancy.

Bu very virtue of raising the issue of sex, you increase sexual activity.

"Sure, there will be some who are sexually active who then better use contraception as a result. But you'll also probably encourage some to have sex who wouldn't have done so before and the net result is the same number of pregnancies - so a zero effect."

Crucially, he argues, they do not get to the heart of why a teenager falls pregnant in the first place: the breakdown of the family, levels of deprivation and whether you go to university, are the factors to focus on.

"Improving education generally would be a much better place to start. Having aspirations is probably one of the best forms of birth control."

Few would dispute that socio-economic status and teenage pregnancy are linked.

"But we can't just say teenagers are getting themselves pregnant because they've nothing else going on in their lives - there is a genuine lack of knowledge about what does what and where you can go for help, " says Juliet Hillier of Brook Advisory Centres, which provides sexual heath services to young people.

"Yet there are immense cultural issues surrounding teenage pregnancy in this country which we need to overcome, and which we can't just rely on the government to sort out.

"Parents, schools, communities, voluntary organisations like ours, all have their role to play - and there's still time - it may turn out that 2010 target isn't so fanciful as many think."

Pharmacies to widen pill access
13 Dec 07 |  Health
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16 Mar 04 |  Health
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15 Oct 04 |  Leicestershire

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