Health workers welcome rise in teenagers visiting clinics. Nicola Porter reports
A record number of school-age boys are being handed condoms at sexual health clinics in Wales.
While the number of Welsh men attending NHS Trust centres over the past decade has shot up by 28 per cent to 4,642, more than a third (1,577) of male visitors to clinics in 2004-5 were underage, with 125 boys aged 13 or younger.
More than two-thirds of all men attending clinics were under 20.
Sexual health workers said the new figures should be welcomed and showed men, and teenage boys in particular, were taking more responsibility for birth control.
Peter Clarke, children's commissioner for Wales, welcomed the apparent increase in the number of young men using such services.
He said: "Sexual health services and advice have been more readily accessed by young women in the past, and the benefits and safeguards they provide are reduced if only one sex is making contact.
"In the past, the tendency has been to see contraception as something a female partner needs to get sorted. Young men are clearly now aware that it is something they must take responsibility for as well."
Mark Campion, personal and social education (PSE) adviser for schools in Swansea, said: "These figures can only be good. It shows not only that more boys feel comfortable enough to visit clinics but they are taking responsibility too.
"It is better for an underage boy to go to a clinic than end up using no contraception at all."
Schools have been told to support school-age dads and fathers-to-be in an Assembly government consultation document on inclusion and pupil support, published last year. The report said young dads should receive the same support and advice as pregnant girls.
School-based sex education is also helping to break down taboos surrounding sexual health clinics - and to target more boys. In a recent report, Estyn said most Welsh secondary schools looked at had a praiseworthy sex and relationships curriculum in place.
In some local authorities, such as Swansea, specialist sex teachers have been appointed to help buck trends of high teenage pregnancies and incidents of sexually-transmitted diseases. Delegates at a pioneering conference held in the city last year heard teenagers talk about their sexual health problems to adults and tell how health clinics could be made more welcoming.
Mark Campion, who helped to organise the Sex in the City conference last March, held at Swansea's Dylan Thomas centre, said boys should not be forgotten in schemes to target sexual health.
Wales still has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe - for every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 17, 45 are pregnant. Last year, almost 1,000 girls under 16 asked for emergency contraception at Welsh clinics - up from just over 400 in 1994-95.
The overall number of under-16 women attending clinics rose from 4,527 in 2003-04 to 4,591. Of these, 112 were under 13, up from 86 the previous year.
However, under-16s accounted for just 8 per cent of last year's total of 52,000 women visitors. Teenage women (aged under 20) made up 36 per cent - up from 24 per cent in 1994-95. And they accounted for more than half the emergency contraception requests.
Overall, clinics report rising numbers of younger female visitors, while the proportion of older women has remained steady.
Just over half of women who attended the clinics did so for contraception, followed by other needs such as pregnancy testing.