Experts say these figures demonstrate that the social world of young Australians is sexualised before they hit their teen years, and this underlines the need for sex education to be threaded through the entire school curriculum.
A team comprising representatives from Family Planning Victoria, the Centre for Adolescent Health and the Royal Women's Hospital has been working on a report that, they hope, will become the blueprint for the sexual and reproductive health of Victoria's adolescents.
The report, which is expected to be presented to the Government shortly, makes a compelling case for action on this front. In 2001 and 2002, there were 2150 abortions among Victorians aged 15 to 19, a rate of 13 per cent. But the report suggests that the real figure for terminations in this age group is 19.5 per cent when other data, such as those who choose not to use a edicare card, or use public hospitals, is factored in. Victoria does not collect abortion data.
A study some years ago of 2000 young Victorian women under the age of 20 revealed that one in 10 had become pregnant. Half had elected to abort, 30 per cent had their babies and the others had miscarried.
Rates for sexually transmitted infections (STI) have been soaring. Between 2002 and 2004, the notification rate for chlamydia, an infection that often shows no symptoms, jumped by 52 per cent in Victoria and the highest burden of the disease was in the age group 15-24.
According to the project manager of the report, Geraldine McDonald, this epidemic will have huge implications for fertility rates and the health dollar over the next 20 years. Chlamydia is a major cause of infertility. "There has been a lot of discussion in the community about making this part of a general screening program, much like . . . (the Pap smear test), and it does make a lot of sense, given the alarming rates we are seeing," said Ms McDonald. Even more concerning is the fact that these rates may be only the tip of the iceberg. The disease often has few or no symptoms, so it remains undetected.
The rise in the rates of sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia, may be explained in part by the sexual behaviour of young people.
Associate Professor Anthony Smith, deputy director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at LaTrobe University, said young people have more sexual partners than their counterparts of 30 years ago. "This increase in the rate of partner change coupled with less than absolute condom use is sufficient to see the epidemic (in chlamydia) that we are seeing," he said.
George Patton of the Centre for Adolescent Health believes the generational shift when people settle down is critical. In previous generations, the period of sexual activity generally lasted between two and three years before the person settled down with a life partner. That has changed dramatically.
"If one settles down with a life partner, it is usually at an older age - late 20s or early 30s," said Professor Patton. "They begin their sexual activity at a younger age and that period of activity is much longer than before, between 16 and 20 years for some. The typical pattern for young people is to be with a series of partners over that time and the implications are huge for STIs. We have been fortunate in Australia in that we haven't seen tremendous rises in STIs that have taken place in countries like the UK, where the prevalence of chlamydia, gonorrhoea and HIV have increased markedly.
"(But) we have seen rising rates of chlamydia here and there have been significant rises in the rates for herpes."
Ms McDonald says the report highlights the urgent need for a review of how sex education is taught in Victorian schools. "There is a lack of acknowledgement within the curriculum that sexual and reproductive health should be core learning objectives from early primary right through the school life," she said. "It should be age and developmentally appropriate. We need to be able to support our young people to make safe sexual choices and education is the key issue in that."
The report highlights the experience in Scotland, where there is a mandate for sex education in schools. The country runs programs on professional development for teachers to enable them to teach students about sexuality. "Our statistics show that 50 per cent of year 12 students have had sexual intercourse and 25 per cent of year 10s have experienced it," said Ms McDonald. "Until we acknowledge that young people are sexual beings and they will have sex, we will continue to have high rates of teenage motherhood and abortion rates."
Student sex: the numbers are telling
· One in four year 10 students and half of all year 12 students have had sexual intercourse.
· Condom use was higher in year 10 than in year 12.
· Young men in year 10 were most likely to report three or more sexual partners in the previous year.
· Just over a quarter of all sexually active students reported that they had had unwanted sex.
· An estimated 2 per cent of the most recent sexual encounters were same-sex encounters.
· One student in 20 reported having sex that resulted in a pregnancy.
Source: Findings from the Third National Survey of Australian Secondary Students conducted in 2002.