Monday, 15 June 2009

Chlamydia Screening - national online testing is a clear gap

On Friday the Health Protection Agency published statistics on chlamydia screening figures across England. The latest figures show significant progress and an increase in the numbers of young people being tested, and we still have a long way to go.

National programmes inevitably take time to get going as the systems and structures are put in place on the ground. I am sure we will continue to see an increase in the numbers of young people being tested this year. There is however a gap and a challenge for us in the year ahead if government and partner agencies such as Brook and Terence Higgins Trust are to detect and treat the infection within the population to get chlamydia under control, particularly encouraging those who will not access mainstream services to get tested.

Across the country there are many different brands for local and regional chlamydia screening programmes. Young people frequently phone Ask Brook, our information service for young people. They tell us that they don't want to go to a clinic and would prefer to request a test on line which they then receive in the post. They often phone us when they have had difficulty finding out whether they can access a free test on line and how to get it.

A national online service, backed up with a national campaign could fill the gap and are calling on government to consider this as a serious option that will both increase value for money and effectiveness. Without this we risk many young people, perhaps particularly young men, not getting screened and when necessary treated.

Risk, perceptions and parents views on young people using contraception

I have spent many evenings in the garden, restaurants and pubs over the years talking to parents and parents to be about how they hope they will stay calm, not be too strict like their parents, respect their child's wants/desires even if they don't want to go to college or get the job they would love them to get. And given my job we have talked a lot about talking to their children about relationships and sex. All hope they will do it well and not be put off by inner talk that says 'what if other people think I am a bad parent for talking to my child about these things too early.'

I spent this weekend with friends and their two children and I got the taste of 'what will other people think and not feeling good enough'. Twice.

Once when the three year old started talking about 'weeing from his willy' and asking whether his mummy had a willy (he clearly knew she didn't but Daddy did). The people sitting on the table next to us were clearly disconcerted. I was torn between wanting to ask him to be quiet (for the adults sake) and letting the conversation roll (what he wanted).

My second experience was when the seven year old fell into a small river trying to get his football. I was ten seconds away. But another adult not part of our group was even closer. She helped him out of the river. When I got there (and I did run pretty damn fast) it was clear he was fine, the big grin on his face and the 'phew that was close' told me I didn't need to worry too much. Yet the tut of the adult who was closer told me different. The implication (drawn by myself) was that I should have been closer and that I was not being responsible. And so it was that I felt inadequate as a carer for a while. The logical part of me knows that wrapping children in cotton wool is not good for them, their personal development or their ability to understand, assess and manage risk. But logic had gone. It was the feeling that was so strong.

The parents in my group confirmed this was a pretty normal experience - the fear of what others may perceive of their parenting skills stopping them from responding intuitively at times.

So most would concur that parents do, at times, still worry about what other parents think when it comes to talking about contraception with their children. Yet the majority are really supportive of young people's rights to access services and contraception. So it is the perception not the reality that worries us.

A survey from the Department of Children, Schools and Families 'shows that only 4% of parents would feel anxious if they were to discover their 16-19 year old was carrying contraception, meanwhile 90% went on to say that they would actually want to talk openly to their teen as a result. Yet despite this overwhelming consensus, two in five teens still feel they need to be clandestine when it comes to carrying contraception.'

Leading teen agony aunt Anita Naik commented 'Parents are more savvy than ever before and teenagers should be really encouraged by this. Even just ten years ago I would have expected to a much higher percentage of parents to say they would be alarmed if they were to discover their teen carrying contraception and reluctant to talk about it. Far from being embarrassed, however, and as the statistics now show, the overwhelming majority of parents I encounter would be proud to find their teen taking responsibility for their sexual health and feel happy to talk to them further about the subject'.

And I agree with Naik that this progress is brilliant. We must however recognise that it is the gap between the perception, the rhetoric and the reality that will prevent conversations happening. If young people do not feel their parents will respond well, and parents do not feel they have support the conversations will not happen as much as they should. So we must all do everything we can to bridge that gap so parents and young people feel able to have the type of conversations they need to enable them to enjoy and take responsibility for their relationships and sexual choices.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

10 feet running for Brook

A group of us are running for Brook in the British 10k on 12th July.  5 of my friends have set up a sponsorship page at 

If you can sponsor us please do - you can give a minimum of £2 and there is no maximum

Brook does brilliant work - please support us so we can continue to reach more young people and improve their sexual health and relationships.

Thanks Simon

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Condom distribution schemes and boys

Today the Sunday Times reported on new guidance being prepared by Brook that boys as young as 12 will have access to condoms via condom distribution schemes as part of a new strategy across the country.   These condom card schemes have been in operation for over a decade, and as part of a well coordinated package of education, support and services make a vital contribution to helping make sure young people only have sex when they are ready and contributes to a culture which is clear - if you have sex you need to be able to both enjoy and take responsibility for it. 

The Guidance to be published imminently by Brook brings together the learning from existing schemes across the country so others that are thinking about or in the process of setting a scheme up can benefit from the experience of thousands of other people across the country.

As often happens when Brook's work makes the news I get calls from family and friends asking for the real story, sometimes I get taken to task if they believe what they read before clarifying. And often as a result of these conversations I am challenged to think differently or understand an issue from other points of view.  

It was clear today that it is really easy to forget or ignore the significant gender stereotypes and expectations that both boys and girls grow up with in 21st century Britain.  Still, despite some changes, boys  are 'roughed up' from an early age - boys don't cry, be a man, don't be a girl and don't be gay -  and girls taught to play nicely (not like tomboys), to have 'girly ambitions' and not to be angry or outspoken.   

And with these expectations and stereotypes boys learn that they should know everything about sex, want sex all of the time and not need to ask for help.   And so it is a lack of understanding of these unwritten rules that can make sex and relationships education sterile and meaningless for boys (and girls) because it does not pay attention to the strong, pervasive messages about gender in our society.

So when boys of 12, 13 and 14 come to Brook, the absolute majority are not having sex.  Yet often they do want condoms and we want to welcome them.  The world is full of sex and sexual imagery and it is confusing, worrying and frightening if there are not adults able and willing to talk sensibly and help them make sense of these messages.  Boys get less information at home than girls.  The onset of menarche creates a moment for talking about personal issues (although sex and relationships education is not sorted for girls either).  Boys on the other hand have less obvious markers of transition and fathers less confident talking about emotional and sexual issues.

And so it is that boys are hungry for information, hungry to know what sex is, how it happens, why people do it, and a way for them to feel confident to seek that advice is to ask for condoms, to pretend they are having sex.   And giving condoms to younger boys is not, as some argue, a green light for 'any old sex will do'.  At Brook it is a signal that we trust them.  That we value and support them.  That we will help them to understand they must only have sex when they are sure they are ready for it.  That we expect young people to be responsible about sex and that it is sensible for them to know and understand about contraception including what a condom packet is, where the expiry date is, what a condom looks like, feels like etc so when they do choose to have sex they are able to talk about, negotiate and protect themselves.  

Indeed this is what countries with much lower rates of teenage pregnancy do as a matter of course with their young.   Having high expectations for young people's relationships and early sexual experience so they have high expectations of themselves is what marks a responsible society that trusts young people.  Having condom distribution schemes is part of an important package to help develop a positive culture towards young people and sexuality.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Sad murder of an abortion provider in the USA

Here is the link to an article about the work of George Tiller who was sadly murdered in the USA. George Tiller was shot yesterday in Kansas.

The article reflects on the issues that such extreme behaviours raise.