World Health Organisation now has programmes specifically to help teenagers

World Health Organisation now has programmes specifically to help teenagers

For the first time ever, WHO has recognised that adolescents' needs have to be dealt with separately. WHO's Dr Flavia Bustreo talked to Young Post Editor Susan Ramsay about what this means

When it comes to health, the world in general is focused on women and children. They are classed as vulnerable and have special programmes to look after them. But now, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has included "adolescents" in its plans.

The term "adolescent" means someone between the ages of 10 and 20, and for years they were not considered a special group with needs of their own. The new plans don't just concern teenagers in developing countries, but teens everywhere, including those in Hong Kong.

WHO's Assistant Director-General for Family, Women's and Children's Health, Dr Flavia Bustreo, is a woman on a mission. "Adolescents are a unique group with special needs," she says. "The new Global Strategy wants to ensure they not only survive, but thrive."

WHO says that adolescence is the second critical developmental stage in a person's life. This is the stage where the potential acquired during childhood can grow into a more productive adult life, it says in its global strategy report. "The right investments and opportunities may consolidate early gains, or offer a second chance to young people who missed out during childhood. Moreover, as possible future parents, adolescents can transfer health potentials and risks to future generations."

"Many habits that contribute to chronic diseases in adults begin in adolescence," Bustreo says. "For example, smoking, sedentary lifestyles and an unhealthy use of alcohol." Those actions can lead to disease later on, and that can affect a nation's livelihood, she adds.

What's more, adolescents have very specific needs, which governments are not addressing, she says. For instance, in the US, the leading cause of deaths among teenagers is road traffic accidents.

WHO would like to see more teen-friendly health services, which would need to be accessible and affordable, with staff trained to deal with adolescents and their specific problems.

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Thanks to public hospitals, this isn't usually a problem in Hong Kong. But even they are not the friendliest places to young people.

Teens need a welcoming environment, where they feel safe and which they find easy to get to. They need to be sure they will have privacy and trust their information will be confidential, WHO says.

"It needs to be non-judgmental, and respectful, and some services should not require parental consent," says Bustreo, stressing the need for inclusive health care that goes beyond the traditional focus on sex education.

It is important that teens have access to services to deal with and prevent health issues that cause death and illness, such as depression, self-harming, suicide and diseases from anaemia to respiratory infections. Teens need to know they're not alone and that there is help for them.

Bustreo says that generally Hong Kong teens are well looked after, and teenage pregnancy, which plagues other nations, is less likely. But more people need to know about things like depression and anxiety.

She also says young men are the least likely people to make use of health services if they are ill. They will often ignore signs of illness, particularly a sexually transmitted disease, which puts them and others at risk. She calls for better sex education in schools, and more information on sexually transmitted infections.

Most teens get information on sex and related issues from their peers or the internet. But when it comes to important matters of personal health, they need to be getting that knowledge from a professional.

Let me know what you think. Would you go to a doctor on your own? Which issues would you want to know about your health?

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
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