One month ago, Pope Benedict XVI announced that the use of condoms may be morally justified 'when the sole intention' is to combat the spread of AIDS. My immediate response was to ask 'so what?'
As I am writing this column in my capacity as a physician, this is not the place for me to start a religious debate, and I certainly have no wish to upset anyone. However, whilst the Pope's edict may influence the use of condoms in parts of the world, I feel sure that it will do very little to improve condom usage in this country; especially amongst our younger members of society where such improvement is desperately needed.
Two months ago it was announced that the teenage pregnancy rate in the United Kingdom has fallen from 46.6 per 1,000 in 1998, to 40 per 1,000 in 2010. Whilst we should be pleased to make any improvement on this front, it remains deplorable that, in this country, there are 40,000 pregnancies per year in people under the age of 18 years. Although I am all for the United Kingdom taking the lead in respect to many issues the world's stage, having the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe is not an achievement to be particularly proud of.
Unfortunately (in respect to condoms), the majority of our young people are not influenced by the traditional teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Neither (speaking from a Northern Lincolnshire perspective) are they greatly influenced by the risk of contracting AIDS, as the incidence of the latter is mercifully low in this region compared to some of our cities, and very low compared to certain countries in Africa. Nor do our teenagers particularly concern themselves with preventing other forms of venereal disease; except that is, in respect to Chlamydia infections. Though, with the latter, my perspective is that we also seem to have got the message over in the wrong way. Anecdotally, I come across teenagers informing me that they have responsibly taken another Chlamydia test (note the word 'another') as they have recently changed partners. Yes, that is good news to a point. However, if they were to use condoms in the first place then there would not be the same need for the Chlamydia tests. We are not doing very well in communicating the real messages.
The truth is, our sex education program is not working. Yes, there is a place for moralistic debate and reasoning, greater parental responsibility and informing youngsters of the health risks. However, there is also the pressing need to make condoms 'cool' in the eyes of those most influenced by fashion. Regardless of society's laws, or the best of moralistic and religious teaching, sex happens and will continue to happen within an hormonally fuelled younger generation.
Thus far, we health and social educationalists have got it wrong. Perhaps our sporting and celebrity heroes are the people to recruit in a renewed drive to relegate us from the top of this particular league table.
(This article was first published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Friday 3rd December 2010)