Little Alfie's story just one of many as teenage pregnancies rise

 

LONDON LETTER:LITTLE Alfie Patten, a dark- haired boy from Eastbourne who is 13 but looks just eight, became a worldwide media sensation in February when it was reported that he had fathered a child, writes MARK HENNESSY

Alfie thought the idea of being the father of Maisie, whose mother Chantelle Stedman is just 15, was “just great”. However, his dream was short-lived. Two local boys, Richard Goodsell (16) and Tyler Barker (14) also said they were the father.

The issue was resolved by DNA tests, but the final chapter received far less publicity in May when it emerged that Barker, who lives on the same estate in the seaside town as Chantelle, was the father.

Alfie was devastated. Parents everywhere no doubt wept.

The number of teenage pregnancies in England and Wales, already high, is rising again, figures from the Office for National Statistics show: up from 40.9 conceptions per 1,000 among 15-17-year-olds in 2006 to 41.9 a year later.

It is the first increase since 2002 and it means that the British government will miss its target – one backed by millions in Treasury funding – of halving rates, which are the highest in Europe, by 2010.

One effort that focused on 2,500 girls, at risk because of truancy, drug abuse and other social ills, was abandoned in July, when it became clear that the group, despite the help given, was nearly three times more likely to become pregnant than other at risk, but not targeted girls.

Teenage pregnancy, in the main, equals poverty. In Southwark, one of London’s poorest boroughs, 76.2 out of every 1,000 15-17-year-old girls become pregnant. Just 11 miles away, in leafy Richmond-upon- Thames, the figure is just 15.7 per thousand.

Babies of teenage mothers and fathers, according to official UK Department of Health research, are more likely to be born prematurely and have a 60 per cent greater chance of dying than babies born to older mothers.

Teenage mothers are three times more likely than mothers over 35 to smoke throughout pregnancy, and a third are less likely to breastfeed; their babies are twice as likely to go to hospital because of accidents or gastroenteritis.

The grim statistics go on. Teenage mothers are three times more at risk of post-natal depression, while teenage fathers risk anxiety and depression and are very likely to have been physically abused growing up.

Now, Southwark and Lambeth boroughs in London have begun to give the contraceptive pill to 16-year-old girls without prescription as part of a controversial trial backed by the Department of Health.

Three pharmacies in the boroughs have been given permission to put up posters declaring “The Pill Without Prescription” on their windows to offer contraceptive advice to 16-year-olds, if only, it seems, to wean them away from using the “morning after” pill.

Southwark Primary Care Trust official Jo Holmes said they hoped the more relaxed approach may attract girls previously discouraged from getting contraceptives.

“They may already go to the pharmacy to buy cosmetics and medicines,” she said.

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who represents Mid- Bedfordshire and not Southwark, was quick to voice her criticisms to the Daily Mail.

“The poster looks as though it’s designed to market something as benign and attractive as sweets, sending entirely the wrong moral message,” she said.

The image of consequence-free sex, however, is not just in chemists’ windows. Last month, the medical journal Paediatrics reported that teenage girls in the US who watch TV shows with a high sexual content, such as Sex and the City,are twice as likely to become pregnant.

Research is throwing up contradictory habits and explanations among very young pregnant women in the UK.

The number of women in this group having abortions, having previously had a child, has risen by 41 per cent between 1991 and 1997.

The number of under-20s having a second abortion has jumped by 68 per cent in the same period, according to research published by Dr Jacqueline Collier in Contraception Journalearlier this year.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which interviewed mothers aged 13 and 22 in six of the worst-off places in the UK in 2006, found they had taken “a fatalistic attitude” to becoming pregnant or else had actually wanted to do so.

All said they were fully aware of contraception and strongly anti-abortion and the “vast majority” said their lives had improved since their baby was born, the foundation said in a report which met some criticism.

Meanwhile, the number of teenage pregnancies was expected to have risen in London last month, according to the London Assembly’s teenage pregnancy expert, Adrian Kelly.

Heavy snows brought the city to a virtual standstill for a few days last February, shutting schools.

“There is a seasonal spike – being at school is a huge protection against teenage pregnancy,” said Kelly.