Adolescent and Young Adult Health

Key facts

  • Over 1.5 million adolescents and young adults aged 10–24 years died in 2019, nearly 5000 every day.
  • Young adolescents aged 10–14 years have the lowest risk of death of all age groups.
  • Injuries (including road traffic injuries and drowning), violence, self-harm and maternal conditions are the leading causes of death among adolescents and young adults
  • Half of all mental health disorders in adulthood start by age 14, but most cases are undetected and untreated
  • Early-onset of substance use is associated with higher risks of developing dependence and other problems during adult life, and people of younger ages are disproportionately affected by substance use compared with people of older ages
  • Globally, there are 43 births per 1000 to girls aged 15–19 years per year

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Main health issues

Early pregnancy and childbirth

Approximately 12 million girls aged 15–19 years and at least 777 000 girls under 15 years give birth each year in developing regions. The leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 years globally is complications from pregnancy and childbirth.

 The UN Population Division puts the global adolescent birth rate in 2020 at 43 births per 1000 girls this age – country rates range from 1 to over 200 births per 1000 girls (5). This indicates a marked decrease since 1990. This decrease is reflected in a similar decline in maternal mortality rates among girls aged 15–19 years.

One of the specific targets of the health Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 3) is that by 2030, the world should ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes.

Adolescents need and have a right to comprehensive sexuality education, a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. Better access to contraceptive information and services can reduce the number of girls becoming pregnant and giving birth at too young an age. Laws that are enforced that specify a minimum age of marriage at 18 can help.

Girls who do become pregnant need access to quality antenatal care. Where permitted by law, adolescents who opt to terminate their pregnancies should have access to safe abortion.

Alcohol and drug use

Drinking alcohol among adolescents is a major concern in many countries. It can reduce self-control and increase risky behaviours, such as unsafe sex or dangerous driving. It is an underlying cause of injuries (including those due to road traffic accidents), violence and premature deaths. It can also lead to health problems in later life and affects life expectancy. Worldwide, more than a quarter of all people aged 15-19 years are current drinkers, amounting to 155 million adolescents. The prevalence of heavy episodic drinking among adolescents aged 15­–19 years was 13.6% in 2016, with males most at risk.

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Cannabis is the most widely used psychoactive drug among young people with about 4.7% of people aged 15–16 years using it at least once in 2018.  Alcohol and drug use in children and adolescents is associated with neurocognitive alterations which can lead to behavioural, emotional, social and academic problems in later life.

Prevention of alcohol and drug use are important areas of public health actions and may include population-based strategies and interventions, activities in school, community, family and on the individual level. Setting a minimum age for buying and consuming alcohol and eliminate marketing and advertising to minors are among the key strategies for reducing drinking among adolescents.

Tobacco use

The vast majority of people using tobacco today began doing so when they were adolescents. Prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to minors (under 18 years) and increasing the price of tobacco products through higher taxes, banning tobacco advertising and ensuring smoke-free environments are crucial. Globally, at least 1 in 10 adolescents aged 13–15 years uses tobacco, although there are areas where this figure is much higher.

HIV/AIDS

An estimated 1.7 million adolescents (age 10–19 years) were living with HIV in 2019 with around 90% in the WHO African Region (2).  While there have been substantial declines in new infections amongst adolescents from a peak in 1994, adolescents still account for about 10% of new adult HIV infections, with three-quarters amongst adolescent girls (3). Additionally, while new infections may have fallen in many of the most severely affected countries, recent testing coverage remains low suggesting that many adolescents and young people living with HIV may not know their status (4).

Adolescents living with HIV have worse access to antiretroviral treatment, adherence to treatment, retention in care and viral suppression. A key factor contributing to these is the limited provision of adolescent-friendly services including psychosocial interventions and support.

Read Also: Infection prevention and control

Adolescents and young people need to know how to protect themselves from HIV infection and must also have the means to do so. This includes being able to obtain access HIV prevention interventions including voluntary medical male circumcision, condoms and pre-exposure prophylaxis, better access to HIV testing and counselling, and stronger links to HIV treatment services for those who test HIV positive.

Other infectious diseases

Thanks to improved childhood vaccination, adolescent deaths and disability from measles have fallen markedly – for example, adolescent mortality from measles fell by 90% in the African Region between 2000 and 2012.

Diarrhoea and lower respiratory tract infections (pneumonia) are estimated to be among the top 10 causes of death for adolescents 10–14 years. These two diseases, along with meningitis, are all among the top 5 causes of adolescent death in African low- and middle-income countries.

Infectious diseases like with Human Papilloma Virus that normally occurs after onset of sexual activity can lead to both short-term disease (genital warts) during adolescence but more importantly, also leads to cervical and other cancers several decades later. Early adolescence (9-14 years) is the optimal time for vaccination against HPV infection and it is estimated that if 90% of girls globally get the HPV vaccine more than 40 million lives could be saved over the next century.  However, it is estimated that in 2019 only 15% of girls globally received the vaccine.

Nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies

Iron deficiency anaemia was the second leading cause of years lost by adolescents to death and disability in 2016. Iron and folic acid supplements are a solution that also helps to promote health before adolescents become parents. Regular deworming in areas where intestinal helminths such as hookworm are common is recommended to prevent micronutrient (including iron) deficiencies.

Read Also: Child Health and Maltreatment

Developing healthy eating habits in adolescence are the foundation for good health in adulthood. Reducing the marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt and providing access to healthy foods are important for all, but especially for children and adolescents.

Undernutrition and obesity

Many boys and girls in developing countries enter adolescence undernourished, making them more vulnerable to disease and early death. At the other end of the spectrum, the number of adolescents who are overweight or obese is increasing in low-, middle- and high-income countries.

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Globally, in 2016, over one in six adolescents aged 10–19 years was overweight. Prevalence varied across WHO regions, from lower than 10% in the WHO South-East Asia region to over 30% in the WHO Region of the Americas.

Rights of adolescent

The rights of children (people under 18 years of age) to survive, grow and develop are enshrined in international legal documents. In 2013, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which oversees the child rights convention, published guidelines on the right of children and adolescents to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, and a General Comment on realizing the rights of children during adolescence was published in 2016. It highlights states’ obligations to recognize the special health and development needs and rights of adolescents and young people.

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) also sets out the rights of women and girls to health and adequate health care.

Author: World Health Organization

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