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The time is right to invest in adolescents

Anthony Costello, WHO Director, Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health

Commentary
10 May 2016

When I worked as a paediatrician in a busy district hospital in north London I spent a lot of time on the ‘adolescent section’ of the wards. It looked a lot different than it did in my medical student days. Adolescents now had their own space, with appropriate toilet facilities, and had specially trained nursing staff. Most of the admissions were related to anorexia nervosa, self-harm or intoxication, mental health or family breakdown, or long-term conditions, such as cystic fibrosis or cancer chemotherapy.

Anthony Costello
WHO/C Black

But, I often thought this was only the tip of the iceberg (or the ear of the hippo as they say in Uganda) for adolescent well-being. Were all the adolescents who needed support getting it?

Or were London’s adolescents still for the most part simply fending for themselves, getting information from friends, the internet, and social media networks?

There are 1.2 billion adolescents in the world. Despite making up a sixth of the global population – even a third of the population in many countries – governments have generally overlooked their health needs.

Adolescents have health needs

Many adolescents take excessive risks. Many feign a lack of interest in health and medical care. Yet, most at some stage are worried about their health and often lack someone with whom to share their anxieties.

WHO data on adolescent health may surprise you. An estimated 1.3 million adolescents die each year from preventable or treatable causes such as road injuries, HIV, suicide, pneumonia, and violence.

Many adolescents take excessive risks. Many feign a lack of interest in health and medical care. Yet, most at some stage are worried about their health and often lack someone with whom to share their anxieties.

Anthony Costello, WHO Director, Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health

Around 1 in 3 girls aged between 15 to 19 years have experienced violence from a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. A third of girls in low- and middle-income countries marry before they are 18. About 16 million girls aged between 15 to 19 years give birth every year. So do around 1 million girls who are still under 15.

A staggering 80% of adolescents worldwide do not get enough exercise– in fact, almost three quarters of preventable adult deaths from noncommunicable diseases are linked with risk factors that start in adolescence.

Yet, young adults can be wonderfully resourceful, creative and receptive. If they are engaged positively about their future health, the benefits are potentially enormous.

Making adolescent health a priority

With the launch of WHO's report "Health for the World’s Adolescents" in 2014, adolescents’ health and well-being has taken front stage. Today, the new recommendations from the Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing emphasize and build on steps we’ve started to take to ensure adolescents reach their full potential.

WHO sees adolescent health as a key priority.

We know much more than we did 10 years ago, but there is still a long way to go before we will really understand the potential of new communications habits to impact the health of a digitally literate, phone-carrying generation in almost every country in the world.

We need to work out how to reach out to adolescents and involve them actively in programmes that improve their health. We need to engage young men and women together to rationalize concepts of masculinity and human rights.

Adolescents are now central to the 2015-2030 “Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health”. In this context, WHO is working with adolescents and a wide range of actors to help countries plan, implement and monitor a good response to health needs of adolescents.

When we invest in adolescents, then, we improve their own health and well-being. We also invest in social and economic development. For today’s adolescents are the people who will drive forward achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the future we want.