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Don’t let statistics stop your scare mongering

May 9th, 2005

Dr Petra

Anyone reading the British newspapers today might be forgiven for believing we live in a nation where sinister doctors hang around in surgeries forcing young girls to take the oral contraceptive pill against their will.

Don’t believe me? Check out these headlines:

Doctors put girls aged 10 on the pill – Sunday Times
Girls of 10 given the pill – Daily Mail
Girls aged 10 are taking the pill – BBC News
Revealed: the pill is being prescribed to 10 year olds – The Herald
Warning for doctors after ten year old girls are put on the pill – The Telegraph
Study reveals how doctors encourage sex among children – The Express

Now this is the bit I don’t get. When I talk to journalists they always seem very eager to dispute issues put to them and usually remind me of their tireless quest for ‘facts’ and ‘truth’.

So it’s very worrying when a simple story is manipulated so badly, simply to get shocking headlines and of course sell papers.

Here are the giveaway clues that the media lost the news today, in favour of a self-made scandal.

Clue One – nobody did their homework

The research that launched these scandalous headlines was a straightforward audit of oral contraceptive pill (OCP) prescribing across 161 Scottish primary care practices between November 1999-October 2000. Not one story picked up they were talking about data that’s nearly five years old. In fact many claimed the data was from the ‘past year’.

Clue Two – nobody checked their facts

The researchers collated information on females aged 10-16 who had been prescribed the OCP. Only first prescriptions were counted – meaning that not all girls studied may have even used their prescription or taken the pill long term. Additionally, the researchers didn’t collect the reason for prescription or whether parents were informed – an issue that’ll become important as you’ll see a bit later.

Clue Three – they missed the point completely
The study was attempting to identify how many girls use the OCP given the worryingly high rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK. The aim of the study was to flag up how in fact the use of OCP was low in comparison to reported teenage sexual activity.

Unfortunately journalists reporting this story seemed completely unable to stick to the issue so not only did they get the jist of the research wrong, they also invited quotes and commentary from people that implied children were being neglected, parents were remiss, and doctors were complicit in sexual abuse. Despite pretending to be defending the rights of the child, the stories suggested teens only went on the pill in order to be promiscuous or criticised the high rates of ‘gymslip pregnancies’ – blaming girls and completely ignoring boys’ sexual and educational health needs.

Clue Four – they didn’t bother to go back to the source of the story

Here was a chance to talk about sex education and safeguarding young people, but in a blaze of sensationalism newspapers routinely chose to ignore the facts.

Which were these. The study identified 35,414 girls aged 16 or younger who were registered with one of 161 GP practices. Of these 4.3% had been prescribed the OCP. Less than 1 in 1000 girls aged under 13 had been prescribed the pill. Does that really warrant these headlines?

Clue Five – there was another angle, and they didn’t care to cover it

We must be careful that teenagers aren’t prey to sexual abuse and exploitation, and certainly ten is too young to be having sex. But let’s just look at another explanation of this data.

Imagine you’ve a young daughter, sister, or friend. She’s ten years old and she’s started her periods. She’s the only girl in her class to have hit puberty so early, and her periods are very heavy, leading to her experiencing pain, nausea, and distress and taking at least one day off school every month. Her classmates are curious; some have started teasing her about it. She’s self-conscious and desperately embarrassed about these physical symptoms that cause her pain and mark her as radically different from her peers.

Wouldn’t you want to do something to help her? Well, you could. Taking the OCP could certainly ease her symptoms and help her feel more in control of her periods. Many doctors prescribe the pill for this reason – in full consultation with parents and teenage girls.

No reporter covered this issue, and nobody, despite claiming to be protecting teenage girls, mentioned it in their news reports.

But the researchers made it clear. At the close of their paper they state ‘[a] further important consideration is that the OCP may be prescribed for medical reasons other than contraception such as the treatment of acne, and menstrual irregularities. Consequently it is not safe to assume that all OCP prescribing, identified in this study, was for contraception’.

Because the researchers didn’t ask if parents were informed about OCP use, nor recorded why the pill was prescribed, we can’t tell if these teenagers taking the pill were being given it because they were sexually active, or because they needed it to help them live a normal teenage life, that didn’t include having sex at all. For all we know the very young teenagers could have been taking the pill for reasons other than sexual activity, and their parents could have been fine about it.

These findings deserved as much coverage as the shocking claims that implied all teenage girls are having sex.

So here are some questions for you. What teenager will now feel safe to talk to their doctor about the pill – either for contraceptive reasons or for more general well-being? What parent will trust their GP? And how can we have a sensible conversation about protecting our teens from pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, or child sexual abuse, when our newspapers would rather invent a scare story, than deal with the needs of vulnerable teens?

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