Children as young as 13 should be handed free condoms on the NHS to prevent an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, according to the health watchdog. The watchdog, whose full name is the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, was initially set up in 1999 to decide which drugs should be available on the NHS and draw up best practice guidance for doctors.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) gave the guidance, opening up a consultation, and saying condoms need to be more accessible to the 13-25 age group. NICE is urging youth clubs, sexual health clinics and GPs to offer an unlimited supply of the contraception to boys and girls in a variety of styles.
The watchdog wants to make free condoms available far more widely across England, including to underage teenagers in the hope of curbing soaring rates of STIs.
‘Free condoms are distributed to children as young as 13 years with an intention of sexual health promotion. But some authorities fear this might encourage casual and underage sex.’
Cases of syphilis have increased by 76% in three years while gonorrhoea has risen by 53%, and a drug-resistant virus is now spreading across the UK. Meanwhile, the highest rates of chlamydia, genital herpes and genital warts were found among young people aged 16 to 24.
Health experts are very worried about a new strain of drug resistant gonorrhoea which is sweeping across Britain and cannot be treated with antibiotics.
Christine Carson, of NICE's Centre for Guidelines, said 'We know condoms can protect against many sexually transmitted infections including chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis. The recent increase in rates of gonorrhoea and syphilis amongst men who have sex with men has been attributed to high levels of sex without using a condom. If local authorities and other commissioners can work together to increase condom availability and use amongst high-risk groups we could significantly reduce the rates of STIs."
But campaigners fear the schemes will encourage casual, underage sex with young girls being 'harassed' by teenage boys.
The controversial advice comes days after the NHS was urged to provide an HIV prevention drug to thousands of gay men having unprotected sex. A High Court ruling instructed health bosses to offer the treatment at a cost of up to £20million a year, although they are now appealing the decision.
And critics will question why the NHS is spending its limited budget handing condoms to 13-year-olds when cataract surgery and drugs for rare diseases are being rationed. The existing provision of free condoms is patchy and they are currently given out free by most sexual health clinics and GPs, but only if youngsters ask specifically. NICE wants to massively expand their availability and encourage NHS trusts to promote them, in some cases using sexual innuendo. And it said local authorities should find ways to offer condoms at cost price to the wider public.
The watchdog wants to roll-out a scheme whereby youngsters apply for a 'C card', entitling them to free condoms from youth clubs and family planning clinics.
In Norfolk, where this is already in operation, they are directed to the Are you getting it
website which advertises condoms in flavours including chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and mint. The NHS trust in Haringey, North London, runs a scheme with a website offering detailed advice on how to put condoms on.
Norman Wells of the Family Education Trust said "Making condom schemes available to young teenagers is sending out the message that they can experiment sexually without suffering any adverse consequences. But what young people are not being told is that casual sex still carries a high risk of sexually transmitted infections even if condoms are used."
Patricia Morgan, a researcher on family policy, said'This is just encouraging the sorts of behaviour that spreads diseases. By giving these things out you are sending a message out saying 'this is fine'. The record from countries which have tried this is that girls get harassed and boys just expect to have sex."
NICE claims there is no evidence these types of schemes encourage underage age sex or riskier behaviour. The watchdog is also targeting young, gay men who are at particular risk of syphilis and gonorrhoea.
Brook, the sexual health charity, which runs schemes in 11 parts of the country providing free condoms to under 25s welcomed the guidance.
Approximately 435,000 sexually transmitted infections were diagnosed in England in 2015. The NHS currently spends an estimated £620million a year treating STIs and some cause very serious complications, including infertility. Chlamydia and gonorrhoea can also be very dangerous for pregnant women and lead to miscarriage or the baby being born with disabilities.