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Lessons seen as route to sexual health

Better sex education is needed to tackle the problems of teenage pregnancy and the worryingly high incidence of sexually-transmitted diseases, according to a new report.

The paper, produced by the University College London medical school, blames poor education, among other factors, for high levels of sexually-transmitted disease in teenagers, young homosexual men and ethnic minorities.

Its author, Professor Michael Adler, of the university's department of sexually-transmitted diseases, believes better sex education is one of the most immediate means of improving standards of sexual health. He blamed the 1993 Education Act, which made sex education a compulsory part of the national curriculum, but also allowed parents to withdraw children from lessons discussing HIV or Aids, sexually-transmitted diseases and sexual behaviour.

DFEE guidelines state that sex education should cover subjects including human reproduction and the ethics of sexual attitudes, as well as HIVAids and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

Professsor Adler said the Act had "created anomalies around sex education and contraceptive advice in schools". He added that attempts to withhold information to adhere to an agenda of family values resulted in teenagers not protecting themselves against disease and unwanted pregnancy.

He said: "Some children face the extremely difficult situation where they are not given any sex education at home and are not getting the information they need at school."

Future success would require "clear and easily obtainable" sex education, "without fear or hindrance from the Department of Education and Employment."

He said: "Young people have a right to sound, unbiased information that allows them to make informed choices before they have sexual intercourse.

"We have the highest teenage rate of conception and termination in Europe,illustrating the failure of our education programmes. "

The report said there was no evidence of sex education lessons encouraging children to become sexually active at an earlier age than would otherwise be the case.

His research comes on the fifth anniversary of the last government's Health of the Nation initiative, which set targets for reducing the incidence of HIVAids, teenage pregnancies and gonorrhoea.

The report found no decline in new cases of gonorrhoea in homosexual men over the past five years, and revealed that new cases of HIVAids rose sharply in 1996.

Altogether 1,862 cases of Aids were reported - an 18 per cent rise on 1995 - accompanied by the highest annual total of newly- reported cases of HIV infection, a total of 2,986. The most recent figure for unwanted pregnancies, 8.2 per 1,000 in 1994, is still far higher than the target of 4.8 per 1,000 to be achieved by 2000.

Professsor Adler's research, published in the British Medical Journal, comes just a month after the British Medical Association called for a public debate over compulsory sex education, and better teacher training.

A DFEE spokesman said very few parents chose to withdraw their children from sex education lessons.

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