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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia Lancet Study Commissioners Report Unsafe Sex is Fastest-Growing Risk for Ill Health in Teens

Columbia University was one of four global academic institutions that led The Lancet Commission’s groundbreaking report, “Our Future: A Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing,” which found that years of neglect and underinvestment have had serious detrimental effects on the health and wellbeing of adolescents aged 10–24 years.

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[Photo: Dr. John Santelli (left) and Ms. Terry McGovern]

The report also showed that the fastest-growing risk factor for ill health in young people aged 10–24 years over the past 23 years is unsafe sex.

Adolescents also face new challenges, including rising levels of obesity and mental health disorders.

Dr. John Santelli, chair of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and a lead commissioner, was a featured panelist on country responses to the report at the launch event held in London. Ms. Terry McGovern, Columbia Mailman School professor of Population and Family Health, also one of the commissioners, took part in a panel on taking action in the secondary school setting.

“Inconsistent, irrational laws have a negative impact on adolescent health,” noted Ms. McGovern, an expert on improving healthcare for low-income women and programming relating to HIV, gender, LGBT, and human rights. “In many countries, married female adolescents can access contraception, while the unmarried cannot. These are irrational inconsistencies which result in bad health outcomes.”

The single best investment we can make is guaranteeing access to free, quality secondary education, according to the report. Every year of education beyond age 12 is associated with fewer births for adolescent girls and fewer adolescent deaths for boys and girls.

Because adolescence is generally thought to be the healthiest time of life, young people have attracted little interest and too few resources. Yet most health problems and lifestyle risk factors for disease in later life emerge during these years. In fact, adolescents aged 10–24 years have the poorest health care coverage of any age group. Access to universal health coverage — regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, and marital and socioeconomic status, particularly among the most marginalized — was a key recommendation of the Commission.

According to the authors, the report’s findings should serve as a wake-up call for major new investment for the 1.8 billion adolescents worldwide — the largest generation in history — 89 percent of whom live in developing countries. Their number is set to rise to about 2 billion by 2032.

“From a life-course perspective, adolescents stand at the crossroads of the major challenges to global health: HIV/AIDS, intentional and unintentional injuries, sexual and reproductive health, and chronic disease,” noted Dr. Santelli, adding that, “Investments in adolescent health have the potential to alter the future course of global health.”

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[Photo: Lead commissioners with Dr. John Santelli (center)]

The Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing was supported by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

Read the full Lancet Commission Report and Commentaries from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Melinda Gates