Women at risk from alcohol: why we must catch them young

12th June 2009 at 01:00

Thank you for giving some long due prominence to the elephant in the (class) room: high-risk parental drinking ("Alcohol abuse leaves toxic legacy", May 29).

Our research is beginning to characterise a population of women at risk of many problems. They begin drinking very young (around 11); their first experience of sex is while drunk and in early adolescence. While they may drink little and practise "safe sex" on school days with their regular partner, when on the town with girlfriends at the weekends, they consume staggering quantities of alcohol and do not use condoms for their many one-night stands.

Sadly, the population at risk of sexually transmitted infections and early pregnancies linked to heavy intoxication is also the group of schoolgirls with the lowest levels of "health literacy".

For example, after successful treatment for one episode of chlamydia, they may be back only six months later needing another dose of antibiotics.

As the Policy Exchange report Hitting the Bottle highlights, patterns of alcohol use and related harm in Britain are diverging from patterns in the rest of Europe.

Impaired child development caused by drinking while pregnant will grow more and more common, often combined with problems related to pre-term birth or poor attachment in infancy. One key intervention to reduce this problem will be to delay drunkenness in very young children from around the time they enter secondary education to a more developmentally mature age, and another is to educate the teenagers who drink how to imbibe in less dangerous ways.

Having been involved in substance use education in schools, I know that it is hard to find teachers or school nurses who are well trained, motivated and supported to influence 10 to 12-year-olds at this critical stage of social and emotional transition.

The best chances of success in schools depend on making the risks of alcohol part of a more coherent approach to developing pupils' health literacy, building the self-efficacy of children so that they develop a sense of mastery over health problems, and involving young people in designing and delivering the alcohol-awareness materials.

Professor Woody Caan, Chair of public health, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, and editor of the 'Journal of Public Mental Health'.

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