Improved sex education has resulted in growing numbers of under-16s taking the contraceptive pill, health experts have said.
More than 1,000 girls aged 11-12 were prescribed the oral contraceptive last year, fuelling concerns among critics that the Pill was being handed out solely for contraceptive use too readily.
However, officials from the Royal College of General Practitioners have rounded on the interpretation of the General Practice Research Database figures, saying the Pill is often prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of other health conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome.
The figures revealed that three in every 10,000 children aged 11 - and three out of every 1,000 12-year-olds - were prescribed the Pill last year, sparking fears that GPs and authorised prescribers were encouraging children under legal age to pursue contraception without their parents’ knowledge.
But Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said the rise in prescriptions represents an improvement in sex education but not necessarily an increase in sexual activity.
“I believe that the system has improved. There hasn’t been an increase in sexual activity in young girls - this is about girls acting more maturely and seeking advice on contraception,” he said.
His thoughts have been echoed by Dr Petra Boynton, lecturer in international health services research at University College London, who said the Pill is frequently prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of heavy periods, which would otherwise keep children off school and that “media hype” was preventing parents and children from accessing accurate information.
“Taking hormonal contraception is, for many girls, a means of ensuring they don’t miss school. It reduces symptoms that could be painful, distressing and single them out for bullying,” she said.
“When the pill is prescribed for medical reasons usually it is parents, in discussion with their daughters, who initiate contact the GP. Of course hormonal contraception also prevents pregnancy. But being on the pill is not an indicator of having underage sex.”