Most young people are healthy. However, more that 2.6 million young people aged 10 to 24 die each year. A much greater number of young people suffer from illnesses which hinder their ability to grow and develop to their full potential. A greater number still engage in behaviours that jeopardize not only their current state of health, but often their health for years to come. Nearly two-thirds of premature deaths and one-third of the total disease burden in adults are associated with conditions or behaviours that began in their youth, including: tobacco use, a lack of physical activity, unprotected sex or exposure to violence.
Promoting healthy practices during adolescence, and taking steps to better protect young people from health risks is critical to the future of countries’ health and social infrastructure and to the prevention of health problems in adulthood.
In 2002, the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children recognized the need for the "development and implementation of national health policies and programmes for adolescents, including goals and indicators, to promote their physical and mental health".
An important framework for young people's health are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Two of the MDGs are particularly relevant to young people's health.
The right of all young people to health is also enshrined in international legal instruments. In 2003, the Committee of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) issued a General Comment in which the special health and development needs and rights of adolescents and young people were recognized. These are further supported by the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Right to Health.
Health issues affecting young people
Some of the main health issues affecting young people are described below.
Early pregnancy and childbirth
About 16 million girls aged 15 to 19 years give birth every year - roughly 11% of all births worldwide. The vast majority of adolescents’ births occur in developing countries. The risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes is much higher for adolescents than for older women. The younger the adolescent, the greater the risk. The formulation and enforcement of laws that specify a minimum age of marriage, community mobilization to support these laws, and better access to contraceptive information and services can decrease too-early pregnancies. Those adolescents who do become pregnant should be provided with quality antenatal care and skilled birth attendance. Where permitted by law, those adolescents who opt to terminate their pregnancies should have access to safe abortion.
Fifteen to 24 year olds accounted for an estimated 40% of all new HIV infections among adults worldwide in 2009. Every day, 2400 more young people get infected and globally there are more than 5 million young people living with HIV/AIDS. Young people need to know how to protect themselves and have the means to do so. This includes condoms to prevent sexual transmission of the virus and clean needles and syringes for those who inject drugs. Currently, only 36% of young men and 24% of young women have the comprehensive and correct knowledge they need to protect themselves from acquiring the virus. Better access to HIV testing and counselling will inform young people about their status, help them to get the care they need, and avoid further spread of the virus. Where social, cultural and economic conditions increase the vulnerability of young people to HIV infection, an effective HIV prevention strategy should aim to address these factors as well.
Many boys and girls in developing countries enter adolescence undernourished, making them more vulnerable to disease and early death. Conversely, overweight and obesity (another form of malnutrition with serious health consequences and important longer term financial implications for health systems) are increasing among young people in both low- and high-income countries. Adequate nutrition and healthy eating and physical exercise habits at this age are foundations for good health in adulthood. In addition, it is important to prevent nutritional problems by providing advice, food and micronutrient supplementation (e.g. to pregnant adolescents), as well as detecting and managing problems (such as anaemia) promptly and effectively when they occur.
In any given year, about 20% of adolescents will experience a mental health problem, most commonly depression or anxiety. The risk is increased by experiences of violence, humiliation, devaluation and poverty, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young people. Building life skills in children and adolescents, and providing them with psychosocial support in schools and other community settings can help promote mental health. If problems arise, they should be detected and managed by competent and caring health workers.
The vast majority of tobacco users worldwide began when they were adolescents. Today an estimated 150 million young people use tobacco. This number is increasing globally, particularly among young women. Half of those users will die prematurely as a result of tobacco use. Banning tobacco advertising, raising the prices of tobacco products and laws prohibiting smoking in public places reduce the number of people who start using tobacco products. They also lower the amount of tobacco consumed by smokers and increase the numbers of young people who quit smoking.
Harmful use of alcohol
Harmful drinking among young people is an increasing concern in many countries. Alcohol use starts at a young age: 14% of adolescent girls and 18% of boys aged 13–15 years in low- and middle-income countries are reported to use alcohol. It reduces self-control and increases risky behaviours. It is a primary cause of injuries (including those due to road traffic accidents), violence (especially domestic violence) and premature deaths. Banning alcohol advertising and regulating access to it are effective strategies to reduce alcohol use by young people. Brief interventions of advice and counselling when alcohol use is detected can contribute to reducing harmful use.
Violence is one of the leading causes of death among young people, particularly males: an estimated 430 young people aged 10 to 24 years die every day through interpersonal violence. For each death, an estimated 20 to 40 youths require hospital treatment for a violence-related injury.
Promoting nurturing relationships between parents and children early in life, providing training in life skills, and reducing access to alcohol and lethal means such as firearms help prevent violence. Effective and empathetic care for adolescent victims of violence and ongoing support can help deal with both the physical and the psychological consequences of violence.
Unintentional injuries are a leading cause of death and disability among young people. Road traffic injuries take the lives of a staggering 700 young people every day. Advising young people on driving safely, strictly enforcing laws that prohibit driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs and increasing access to reliable and safe public transportation can reduce road traffic accidents in young people. If road traffic crashes occur, prompt access to effective trauma care can be life saving.
(Source: WHO Fact sheet N°345)