© 2008 Sudipto Das, Courtesy of PhotoshareAt USAID’s Mini University this year, adolescent health expert Dr. Robert Blum led a session titled, “Adolescent Health: How Far We Have Come, How Far We Have to Go.”  During this session, Dr. Blum explained how advancements in science, research and advocacy have improved adolescent health and, yet, how much work stills remains.  More than 2.6 million young people ages 10 to 24 die each year; among the 10 leading causes of death among this age group, six are socially determined.  Mental health issues are on the rise among young people; approximately 20% experience a mental health problem, and psychiatric disorders are the leading cause of disability among adolescents and young adults.  Approximately 5 million young people are living with HIV, and youth account for 40% of all new HIV infections. Rates of adolescent pregnancy are staggeringly high, with 16 million girls ages 15 to 19 giving birth every year. Both malnutrition and obesity are epidemic among youth and tobacco and alcohol use threaten the health of millions of young people.  Today’s generation of young people is the largest in history, and these young people face a variety of health challenges that deserve urgent attention.

How Far Have We Come?

The future of adolescent health is not in a state of despair; recent gains in science, research and advocacy have improved understanding of and attention toward adolescent health needs.  During his presentation, Dr. Blum highlighted the following:

  • We have a much richer sense of data related to adolescent health.
  • We have better research, including neurodevelopmental and genetic research.
  • We have improved conceptual models to guide our work.
  • We better understand the social determinants of health.
  • There is more global attention to adolescent health than ever before.

Through advancements in science, we have come to better understand adolescent brain development; we now understand how the brain continues to develop throughout the adolescent years, and how brain development affects adolescent health behaviors. We have a greater understanding of the role of genetics in health outcomes; we have learned that genetic factors alone only account for approximately 5% of disease, whereas most diseases are the combined result of biology and environment.  This has shaped our understanding of how to address adolescent health issues and has guided the development of conceptual models that address both risk and protective factors leading to today’s prevailing notion of positive youth development.

How Far Do We have to Go?

Despite these gains there is much more we need to do to fully address adolescent health. According to Dr. Blum we still need:

  • Better quality age-disaggregated data
  • Improved information on successful interventions
  • Improved advocacy
  • To move away from the unhelpful mindset of deterrence
  • To do the “do-able”

While data and information about adolescent health outcomes have improved much is lacking; specific information about young people is often hidden within national data sets.  Along with more data on adolescent health outcomes, we need more data on successful interventions. There is a lack of clarity about what the best approach to adolescent health is. Dr. Blum suggests we push the envelope; he stated that programs “have to have a high tolerance for failure or they are just not doing enough.”  We need not only to improve our programs but also to improve our advocacy efforts.  Finally, we need to continue to implement those programs that are working. Simple low-cost interventions that are proven successful can vastly improve the health of adolescents. These interventions include providing iron supplements,  promoting access to contraception, increasing school enrollment, offering life skills education,  encouraging hand washing,  and providing vaccination.  In the words of Dr. Blum, to achieve improved health outcomes among adolescents, we need to “do the do-able.”