Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health

Why invest in adolescent health?

A critical, overarching reason to invest in the health of adolescents is that adolescents, like all people, have fundamental rights to life, development, the highest achievable standards of health and access to health services. These are supported by global human rights instruments, to which almost all countries are signatories.

Investment brings a triple dividend

More specifically, it is becoming increasingly clear that promoting and protecting adolescent health will lead to great public health, economic and demographic benefits. Investments in adolescent health bring a triple dividend of health benefits:

For adolescents now – promotion of positive behaviours (e.g. good sleep habits and constructive forms of risk-taking, such as sport or drama) and prevention, early detection and treatment of problems (e.g. substance use disorders, mental disorders, injuries and sexually transmitted infections) can immediately benefit adolescents.

For adolescents’ future lives – support for establishing healthy behaviours in adolescence (e.g. diet, physical activity and, if sexually active, condom use) and reduction of harmful exposures, conditions and behaviours (e.g. air pollution, obesity and alcohol and tobacco use) will help set a pattern of healthy lifestyles and reduce morbidity, disability and premature mortality later in adulthood.

For the next generation – promotion of emotional well-being and healthy practices in adolescence (e.g. managing and resolving conflicts, appropriate vaccinations and good nutrition) and prevention of risk factors and burdens (e.g. lead or mercury exposure, interpersonal violence, female genital mutilation, substance use, early pregnancy and pregnancies in close succession) can help protect the health of future offspring.

Investment reinforces gains made from early childhood

Investing in adolescent health maintains and reinforces successful health interventions that children benefited from in early childhood, and rectifies earlier health deficits. Conversely, gains made through substantial investment in maternal and child health programmes over recent decades are at risk of being lost if there is insufficient investment in adolescent health programming today.

Investment brings wider societal gains

In addition, improved adolescent health brings economic and larger societal benefits. This occurs through greater productivity, reduced health costs and enhanced social capital. In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), investment in adolescent health is likely to result in declines in mortality and fertility rates, which can contribute to accelerated economic growth. With fewer births each year, a country’s young dependent population grows smaller in relation to the working-age population (aged 15–64 years), creating a window of opportunity for rapid economic growth. In high-income countries (HICs) as well, investment in the health and well-being of low-income adolescents, including those who have high birth rates and are more exposed to risk factors for ill-health, can help to break the transmission of poverty and disadvantage across generations.

Investment in adolescent health is also essential to achieve the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets, each of which relates to adolescent development, health or well-being directly or indirectly. Some SDGs, such as those addressing health and food security, broadly encompass the health and well-being of adolescents within their targets for broader populations.

Finally, investing in adolescent health is vitally important because it is a unique phase of human development and also because of the particular disease and injury burdens that are borne by adolescent populations. The remainder of this section will focus on those two topics before discussing the need for tailored approaches to adolescent health interventions and priority setting within national adolescent health programming.

A call for accelerated action for the health of adolescents

Today there is an unprecedented opportunity for adolescent health. Globally, there is an increasing sense of urgency that something different must be done to respond more effectively to the needs of adolescents. The rapid physical, cognitive and psychosocial growth and development that takes place between the ages of 10 and 19 years influences an individual for the rest of his or her life. In addition, adolescents experience a substantial proportion of the global population’s disease and injury burden.

Many of these conditions are preventable or treatable, but to date they have been neglected and need more sustained focus and investment. Recognizing the critical importance of adolescent development – and investing sufficiently to fully promote and protect adolescent health and well-being – is key to sustainable development.

The global community is responding to this call for action. In September 2015, the United Nations Secretary-General launched the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health (2016–2030) in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Global Strategy envisions a world in which every woman, child and adolescent realizes their rights to physical and mental health and well-being, has social and economic opportunities, and is able to participate fully in shaping prosperous and sustainable societies.

This new strategy identifies adolescents as central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda, including those related to poverty, hunger, education, gender equality, water and sanitation, economic growth, human settlement, climate change and peaceful and inclusive societies.