Investing in adolescent health and wellbeing could transform global health for generations to come

Patton and Professor Susan Sawyer
Professor George Patton and Professor Susan Sawyer have been appointed as Commissioners on the Lancet Commission for Adolescent Health.

A leading Australian youth health expert will chair a major new Lancet Commission on adolescent health and wellbeing, launched in London on May 10.

University of Melbourne Professor George Patton, head of the Centre for Adolescent Health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, is co-ordinating the worldwide effort.

Professor Patton said decades of neglect and chronic underinvestment by the global health community have had serious detrimental effects on the health and wellbeing of adolescents.

“This generation of young people can transform all our futures. There is no more pressing task in global health than ensuring they have the resources to do so," he said.

"This means it will be crucial to invest urgently in their health, education, livelihoods, and participation.”

Two-thirds of young people grow up in countries where preventable and treatable health problems like HIV/AIDS, early pregnancy, unsafe sex, depression, injury and violence remain a daily threat to their health and wellbeing.

The Commission brings together 30 of the world’s leading experts from 14 countries and two young health advocates, led by four academic institutions: the University of Melbourne, University College London, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK and Columbia University, in the USA.

According to Professor Patton, adolescence is a critical time of formative growth and brain development second only to infancy.

“Evidence shows that behaviours that start in adolescence can determine health and wellbeing for a lifetime," he said.

“Adolescents today also face new challenges, including rising levels of obesity and mental health disorders, high unemployment, and the risk of radicalisation.

“Puberty triggers a cascading process of brain development and emotional change that continues through to the mid-20s.

“It brings a different and more intense engagement with the world beyond an adolescent’s immediate family.

“These processes shape an individual’s identity and the capabilities he or she takes forward into later life. It profoundly shapes health and well-being across the life-course.”

Most health problems and lifestyle risk factors for disease in later life also emerge during these years, he said.

Among the Lancet’s recommendations for action is an emphasis on the importance of education. It is crucial to involve young people in transforming their wellbeing, personal development and health, the authors said.

“The single best investment we can make is guaranteeing access to free, quality secondary education,” Professor Patton said.

“Every year of education beyond age 12 is associated with fewer births for adolescent girls and fewer adolescent deaths for boys and girls.

“A healthy, educated workforce has the potential to shape a country’s economic prospects.”

Digital media and new technologies offer remarkable opportunities to engage and empower young people to drive change, the authors said.

Other recommendations point to a pressing need to ensure that that all young people have access to universal health coverage.

“Young people are the world’s greatest untapped resource,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“Adolescents can be key driving forces in building a future of dignity for all. If we can make a positive difference in the lives of 10-year-old girls and boys today, and expand their opportunities and capabilities over the next 15 years, we can ensure the success of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Melinda Gates from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offers cautious optimism.

“My children’s generation is better equipped to expand the limits of human possibility than any that has gone before. But while responsibility for their health and wellbeing lies with everyone, accountability currently rests with no one," she said.

“Our foundation strongly supports the Lancet Commission’s call for a global accountability mechanism that can offer independent oversight of a comprehensive adolescent health agenda, with young people at the forefront.

“For too long adolescents have been the forgotten community of the health and development agenda. We cannot afford to neglect them any longer.”

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