22/10/2012 12:10 BST | Updated 22/12/2012 05:12 GMT

World Health Summit: Let's Put Adolescent Health on the Global Agenda

This year's World Health Summit focuses on health in the context of sustainable development - an important topic for the development community. This week, children's charity Plan International is working with AstraZeneca and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as part of the Young Health Programme to ensure that the health needs of young people are recognised on this global health platform.

The young generation has the potential to accelerate sustainable development. They will shape their country's economic prospects; they are able to act as agents of social change in their communities; they can contribute positively to the environment in which they live.

But. To do this successfully, this generation needs to be healthy.

For adolescents to contribute positively to development, we need to create social and physical environments that promote their health. We need to provide accessible services to address their specific - and immediate - health needs. From sexual and reproductive health education, to protection from violence, to alcohol and drug abuse counselling. And we need to understand how these negative behaviours are being exacerbated by the physical contexts in which these young people are living. From theft, to sexual harassment, to gun violence, to over-crowding.

And we need to understand from young people themselves what they think. And what they need.

This is our message at the World Health Summit. Our plan this week is to share the views of young people around the world about the biggest challenges affecting their health - whether it's from new data collected by academic partner Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Public School of Health or from young people involved in Plan's programmes on the ground. And from influential young people helping to promote our work here in the UK.

Through personal experience, as well as in my role as an advisor on sexual and reproductive health service access for young people, here are my thoughts on key health issues affecting young people, both in the UK and in some of the countries I've visited through my work with Plan..

Service provision

Sexual health service provision in this country has drastically improved in recent years but there is work to do. Sex is still a stigmatised subject; young people often don't feel comfortable talking about it with their parents, teachers and professionals connected to their schools, such as a school nurse or youth worker. Sadly it means that many young people are missing out on crucial healthcare advice and services. Instead, they get misguided, sometimes wrong and dangerous advice from each other and from the Internet. Youth services, schools and in fact their own families all need to start talking about sex with the attitude it deserves. It is something most people experience in their lives. Rather than hints and tips it's more about ensuring the correct health services and signposting are available for young people.

As well as access outside of school, there is room for improvement in the national citizenship curriculum and local authorities' capacity to develop and teach sex education. One suggestion would be to have local sexual health charities deliver educational workshops without teachers in the room, so young people can explore issues from techniques, to how to lead a healthy sex life. It would be even better if trained young people delivered these workshops.

Plan has been using this model in Zambia through its Young Health Programme (a global partnership between AstraZeneca, Plan and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health), and it is evident that peer educators have a greater impact on young people than professionals. They destigmatise the subject and create a comfortable environment to explore issues including sexuality, unprotected sex and abortion. In fact getting young people to attend the workshops is a huge step in the right direction - they have anonymous access to a support network. What's more, contentious issues such as sexuality need to be approached creatively through drama, community radio and participatory workshops for example - which is working in all three of our projects - India, Zambia and Brazil - on the Young Health Programme.

Confidentiality and trust

Confidentiality receives a lot of attention. Locally, health professionals receive training in the fundamental issue of privacy, especially where young people are concerned. It's important for them to feel their parents won't find out because they happen to be neighbours with the nurse. There is a need to empower young people to take control of their sexual health and give them choice about how they behave, without being marginalised or banished from their communities.

A few more developments such as 'no questions asked contraception schemes' that allow young people to access contraception, free of charge and anonymously at various accredited distribution points would be worth exploring. Also, most NHS sexual health clinics now text test results to their patients so there is no awkward telephone conversation with the gatekeeper, parent or a chance the post can be inspected! Young people are sexually active, let's ensure it's safe and they have access to confidential and accessible health services.

Similarly, in the UK emotional wellbeing is an issue we don't approach well. Mental illnesses are often still the white elephants in the room - generally, we don't understand them and so the majority of us ignore them. A young person goes through several stages of change during their adolescence. Their level of happiness changes from day-to-day; their sense of identity receives pressure from local communities and the media, sexuality is often confusing and relationships are difficult to understand. People don't understand that mental health is a spectrum and that we are ALL affected in some capacity even something as 'minor' as stress.

Youth-workers, teachers and parents all need access to information and training to help then approach issues that affect mental wellbeing whether that be dealing with bullying (especially the growing issue of cyber bullying) or body image pressure from online press. Identification and resolution of mental health issues is the fundamental solution - it takes time and means we have to engage in uncomfortable situations to secure a sustainable outcome.

The Young Health Programme is a critical asset to Plan's programming work. It addresses uncomfortable issues but empowers young people to take charge of their health - something we could do with a little more of in the UK.

Read more about the Young Health Programme here