Volume 8 Number 7
July 9 - August 13 2012
Researchers from the University of Melbourne and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute are helping to shape the future of adolescent health, by bringing into focus the risks and issues associated with this vulnerable age group.
In a special series on adolescent health published recently in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, Professor George Patton and Professor Susan Sawyer from the University’s Centre for Adolescent Health called for worldwide investment in the health and future of adolescents, based on research and grounded evidence about what works.
In April this year, the 45th session of the United Nations Commission on Population and Development was held with its focus on “Adolescents and Youth”. The Commission is the primary inter-governmental body responsible for matters relating to population and development in the United Nations system.
Professor Patton was one of four external speakers to the Commission and spoke on the theme of Opportunities in Adolescent Health.
On the same day, the Australian mission to the UN and UNICEF convened another event to coincide with the launch of a new report called Progress for Children: a Report Card on Adolescents. This allowed Professor Sawyer an opportunity to promote the importance of adolescent health and how we might best respond to the health needs of adolescents.
“UNICEF’s mandate is 0-18 years but it has historically focused on 0-5 year-olds. In building on last year’s UNICEF State of the World’s Children report UNICEF is now clearly signalling their appreciation that earlier investments in maternal and child health will be jeopardised without investments in the second decade of life,” Professor Sawyer says.
Today’s 1.8 billion adolescents are facing unprecedented changes in the world’s social and physical environments. These changes are transforming adolescent development and, in so doing, changing the prospects for health now and in the future.
In the first paper of the series, led by Professor Sawyer, researchers said adolescents were now more exposed than previous generations to harmful alcohol consumption, illicit drug use, tobacco use and sexually transmitted infections, among other risks.
Professor Sawyer says there is a lack of focus on adolescent health, and that the preventable health risks initiated during adolescence commonly have lifelong consequences.
“Adolescence could be described as the missing link in the life course approach to health. The impacts of health-related behaviours that start in adolescents have impacts throughout their lives, for instance tobacco and alcohol use or obesity and physical inactivity contribute to the epidemic of non-infectious disease.”
At least 70 per cent of premature adult deaths reflect behaviours started or reinforced during adolescence. The links between adolescent and adult health suggest that evidence-based investments in healthy adolescent development have enormous implications for future global health.
In the final paper in the series, led by Professor Patton, researchers analysed currently available international data that allows comparisons between countries. In low-income countries the problems of HIV, TB and maternal mortality remain endemic. With development, many middle-income countries are facing a new epidemic of injuries with very high rates in males in Eastern Europe and Latin America.
“For the largest generation in the world’s history, the available global profile of youth health is worrying. The high-income world has been grappling with a rising tide of risks for non-communicable diseases, including the problems of obesity, physical inactivity, alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use. This tide is now overwhelming many low and middle income countries that have not yet been able to bring in measures to control the problems of injury, infectious disease and maternal mortality in this young age group,” Professor Patton says.
“The UN and its agencies have an urgent central role in aligning systems of data collection to provide a good understanding of a rapidly changing picture of global youth health.”
Professor Patton also highlighted a lack of internationally comparable data in Australia.
“We are a data-rich country in many ways but we cannot make easy comparisons about the health risks our adolescents face compared with the rest of the world. Sometimes we even have trouble making comparisons across the states.
“We should be monitoring and tracking important areas such as binge drinking in youth, tobacco use, illicit drug use and obesity.”