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Sexual health of teenagers in England and Wales: analysis of national data

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 15 May 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:1321

Lack of knowledge on sexual health among teenagers

Editor - Nicoll et al1 and McKee2 indicated that sexual health among adolescents in England and Wales is something about which we should be extremely concerned. Not only do British teenagers have worse sexual health, including unintended pregnancies, than the rest of Europe but, figures suggest that the picture is getting worse. A young people's lifestyle survey, including a section on 'Relationships', was undertaken in the West Midlands in 19963. Data were obtained from 27 257 pupils by self-completed questionnaires administered by study personnel to a randomly selected sample of state school classes, representative of health districts throughout the region. The sample was from school years 7 (aged 11 to 12), 9 (aged 13 to 14) and 11 (aged 15 to 16) and the section on relationships included two knowledge-based sexual health statements, which the young people had to either 'agree' or 'disagree' with or indicate that they were 'not sure'. One of these was 'you can get pregnant having sex for the first time' and 31.2% of the sample either responded that they were unsure (21.5%) or that they disagreed (9.7%). Even among the oldest year group, the 15 to 16 year olds, 15% were still found to have insufficient information on this subject to provide the correct response. There appeared to be a greater awareness however regarding condom use and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, with 83.1% of the sample agreeing that 'using a condom helps to stop you getting sexually transmitted diseases'. This proportion rose to 92.6% among the oldest year group. Whilst it is clear that information and beliefs do not translate directly into practice, the sexual ill health of British teenagers can be explained at least in part by their alarming lack of knowledge.

Emma Sherratt Research fellow

Christine MacArthur Reader in maternal and child epidemiology

Kar-Keung Cheng Professor of epidemiology

Department of Public Health and Epidemiology University of Birmingham Edgbaston Birmingham B15 2TT

1 Nicoll A, Catchpole M, Cliffe S, Hughes G, Simms I, Thomas D. Sexual health of teenagers in England and Wales: analysis of national data. BMJ 1999;318:1321-1322.

2 McKee M. Sex and drugs and rock and roll: Britain can learn lessons from Europe on the health of adolecents. BMJ 1999; 318: 1300- 1301.

3 Sherratt E, MacArthur C, Cheng K, Bullock A, Thomas H. West Midlands Young People's Lifestyle Survey 1995 - 1996 Final Report. Department of Public Health and Epidemiology, University of Birmingham

Competing interests: No competing interests

03 June 1999
Emma Sherratt