Condom card aims to cut teen pregnancy

Tennagers as young as 13 are being issued with 12-trip passes to safer sex, in an effort to drive down abortions and teenage pregnancies.

A scheme in which young people are given bus-pass-style cards entitling them to free packets of condoms has been piloted in Hawke's Bay, and could be picked up nationwide.

Social embarrassment and the cost of condoms were identified by the region's health leaders as factors contributing towards unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

The Condom Card scheme is being hailed by Auckland University's adolescent health research group, which says contraceptive use among youth has remained stagnant at less than 60 per cent for more than 10 years.

New Zealand's teen pregnancy rate is the second highest in the developed world, with the latest census data showing more than 6000 teenagers became pregnant last year.

Hawke's Bay District Health Board population health adviser Michele Grigg said it had taken the lead from similar schemes in Britain. "It was time for some creative thinking."

At present, young people can see their GPs for part-funded prescriptions for condoms. School health nurses and some youth clinics provide them for free, but not in all areas. A packet of condoms costs between $12 and $20.

In Hawke's Bay, more than 40 school counsellors, public health nurses, youth workers and two pharmacists are now trained Condom Card practitioners. Anyone aged between 13 and 24 can see them for a brief talk on safe sex, including advice on consent, and where to access health services, before being issued with a card.

Each time they visit a pharmacist, they get the card clipped and receive a free packet of condoms.

Conversations with younger teens would be focused on safety, and encouragement to talk to their parents, Ms Grigg said.

An Auckland University evaluation after six months of the trial found 51 per cent of more than 200 cardholders were young women, with an average age of 16.

The scheme was funded by the DHB, and other regional health authorities had already been in touch, Ms Grigg said.

Hawke's Bay Family Planning health promoter Gill Lough said chemists at seven participating pharmacies had been given training to be more youth-friendly and not to ask awkward questions.

It was hoped sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy rates in teens would decline, particularly in areas of high deprivation, such as Wairoa.

In Wellington, Evolve Youth Services manager Kirsten Smith said the scheme would be welcome in the capital. Condoms were free at its clinic, but it saw only a fraction of the city's teens. "When you look at how hard it is for young people to access healthcare, something like this just makes sense."

Auckland University's Youth 2012 principal investigator Terryann Clark said national health and wellbeing surveys showed condom use had not risen since 2000.

"We're not making a huge amount of difference for young people, and there's a real need to improve that.

"Most people have access to chemists, and anything that supports sexually active young people to get good quality care is really positive."

Only about a quarter of secondary-school-aged students were having sex, and the idea that giving away free condoms would encourage more was a huge misconception, she said.

"It's not going to make them rush out and do it. If young people have support and education, they are less likely to have intercourse and, when they do, they are more likely to be responsible."

Pharmacy Guild president Karen Crisp said it was great that pharmacists were being used as a source of easily accessible advice, especially if young people were unable, or less likely, to go elsewhere.

Fairfax Media