A "substantial minority" of 15-year-olds have had sexual intercourse, according to results of a survey of 33 943 adolescents from 24 European and North American countries.
In addition, 13.2 percent of the sexually active 15-year-olds surveyed reported that they used no form of contraception during their last intercourse episode.
Majority acting responsibly
The good news, Dr Emmanuelle Godeau, from Service Médical du Rectorat de Toulouse, France, told Reuters Health, is that among these sexually active teenagers, the vast majority (82 percent) is acting responsibly, "protecting themselves and their partner against pregnancy with age-appropriate contraception (condoms and/or pills)."
"Our results - in line with the rest of the scientific literature in this domain - show that, on the whole, teenagers are well protected against pregnancy but that there is room to improve the promotion of responsible sexual behaviour among adolescents in several countries," Godeau said.
Varying by country
The percentages of 15-year-olds who said they had sexual intercourse varied by country ranging from 14.1 percent in Croatia to 37.6 percent in England. Boys were more apt than girls to report having had sexual intercourse.
Condoms were the most popular means of contraception reported by young teens; however, condom use varied widely between countries, ranging from 53 percent in Sweden to 89 percent in Greece.
"Condoms, even if not the best method to prevent pregnancy with a first-year failure rate of 14.5 percent for those younger than 18 years when used alone, have the advantage of also protecting against sexually transmitted diseases," note Godeau and colleagues in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Contraceptive pills were the second most common contraception method used by the teens surveyed, again with wide variation between countries, from 3 percent in Croatia and Greece to 48 percent in Flemish Belgium and the Netherlands.
The dual use of the pill and condoms was also relatively frequent, ranging from 2.6 percent in Croatia to 28.8 percent in Canada. The use of the pill was most common in northern and western Europe.
"There seem to be a geographical pattern for higher levels of effective contraceptive use in western Europe," Godeau noted. No countries from central or eastern Europe, with the exception of Macedonia, had high levels of well-protected students (use of condoms and/or pills), the researcher added.
Ensuring access benefits teens
Dr John Santelli and co-authors at Columbia University, New York, point out in an accompanying editorial that contraceptive use among young teenagers is particularly high - and pregnancy rates low - in countries such as the Netherlands that are "strongly accepting of teenage contraceptive use and are insuring adolescent access to contraception and sex education."
"Such examples challenge the notion that teenage sexual activity always has serious short-term and long-term health-compromising consequences," they note.
SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, January 2008.
Teens flock to abortion clinics