Providing condoms to adolescents has been - and likely will continue to be - a controversial topic. But the American Academy of Pediatrics is asking communities, educators, parents and doctors to step up in making this form of contraception more available to teens.
"Although abstinence of sexual activity is the most effective method for prevention of pregnancy and STIs (sexually transmitted infections), young people should be prepared for the time when they will become sexually active," several doctors wrote in a policy statement published Monday in the organization's journal Pediatrics. "When used consistently and correctly, male latex condoms reduce the risk of pregnancy and many STIs, including HIV."
Teen pregnancy rates are declining in the United States; in 2011, the number of babies born to women aged 15 to 19 was at a record low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, continue to be a problem for this age group. The CDC estimates that people between the ages of 15 and 24 account for half of the 20 million new STI cases that are reported each year.
In the statement, an update from their 2001 position, the pediatricians' organization recommends removing restrictions and barriers that often prevent teens from accessing condoms. Parents should be talking to their teens about sex, the doctors say, and pediatricians can help. The paper's authors encourage their colleagues to provide condoms in their offices and support increasing access in the community. They also recommend providing condoms in schools, in addition to comprehensive sexual education.
It's advice some are already taking to heart. The fairly new Condom Access Project allows teens in seven California counties to confidentially request a pack of condoms online, up to once a month.
In New York, high schools are required to provide Health Resource Rooms where students can access free condoms and other health information. Boston, Philadelphia and other cities are also jumping on board to offer free condoms to teens.
Research has shown that sexual education programs do not increase sexual activity among teens, and may have a significant impact on reducing risky behaviors. One 2007 meta-analysis found that sexual education programs may delay the age at which teens start having sex, reduce the number of partners they have sex with, and increase condom and contraceptive use. The same is true for condom accessibility programs.
Several studies have shown that providing condoms to teens, especially in high schools, encourages them to use condoms "more often and more consistently" without encouraging them to have sex more often, or with more partners, according to Advocates for Youth.
For example, a 2003 study done on Massachusetts high schools' condom availability programs showed "adolescents in schools where condoms were available were more likely to receive condom use instruction and less likely to report lifetime or recent sexual intercourse. Sexually active adolescents in those schools were twice as likely to use condoms."
In the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (the latest data available), 47.4% of students reported having sexual intercourse at least once in their lifetime; 33.7% were sexually active at the time of the survey. Approximately 60% of the sexually active students reported using a condom during their last sexual experience - an increase of 14% since 1991.
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