The most recent event held by the Progress Educational Trust, the charity which publishes BioNews, discussed the current state of fertility education for young people, an area largely overlooked in education and health systems. This meeting showcased the work that different groups have been doing to increase understanding of fertility and reproductive health, as well as awareness of what young people can do now to combat potential fertility issues in the future.
The proceedings opened with a video by the Fertility Education Initiative (FEI) (see BioNews 989) aimed at encouraging young people to consider lifestyle choices that could potentially impact their future reproductive health; it explained the effects of smoking, diet and STIs plus the importance of understanding your own body.
The first speaker was Professor Adam Balen, professor of reproductive medicine and surgery. As a key FEI taskforce member, he presented the challenges in improving sexual health education in young people. He emphasised that delaying starting a family can have fertility repercussions that many women (and men) become aware of too late. He suggested that one way to combat this is to improve relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP) education in schools in Scotland, and personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education in schools in England.
The FEI is working to increase educational resources for the understanding and awareness of fertility, reproductive technologies and modern family forms, all of which can help young people make informed choices later in life. They have already been instrumental in the Department of Education's decision to include new age-appropriate information on reproductive health in the National Curriculum in England.
The next presenter was Sharon Martin from Fertility Network UK, an organisation that provides advice and guidance for those affected by fertility issues. They have worked with the Scottish Government to develop 'Your Future Fertility': a programme designed to educate young people on issues such as alcohol, smoking, recreational drugs and anabolic steroids that could affect their ability to become parents in later years.
With a focus on university students, student nurses, community workers plus GP and sexual health practitioners, the scheme also provided education about the importance of STI treatment, better understanding of the menstrual cycle – what is normal and what is not – and other key health information such as how having a high BMI could affect your access to Scottish fertility services.
Martin highlighted the difficulty of educating young people on fertility, because it seems so far in their future. However, initial results from their survey look hopeful: despite 72 percent of those asked not being aware of any lifestyle risks, 95 percent agreed that they would consider these issues in the future.
The final speaker was Anna Shams Ili, a student at Glasgow University and communications director for Sexpression:UK, a charity that aims to educate young people on issues relating to relationships, sex and health education. Sexpression:UK is targeted mainly towards 13- to 16-year-olds and is run by student volunteers who are closer in age to their audience, which helps build rapport.
Sexpression:UK has created interactive workshops for schools, in addition to a social media campaign emphasising the importance of sexual health during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also planning a conference for 2021, focusing on the new RSHE curriculum, which is taught in Scotland. As echoed by the previous speakers, engaging both young people and teachers can be challenging, so Sexpression:UK tries to connect the dots between sexual relationships now and reproductive health later while remedying misinformation frequently gained from the mainstream media.
The presentations were followed by a Q&A session during which one audience member raised the issue of how best to engage young males in discussions around fertility. Professor Balen said he finds it important to keep messages short and engaging, while the 'Your Future Fertility' programme targets some colleges with high proportions of male students, and finds that competitive educational games can help boost engagement. Shams Ili agreed it was harder to get boys to participate but found that interactive workshops worked well.
Endometriosis was also discussed, including recent study findings that highlighted how repeated use of tanning beds may be a risk factor. Professor Balen emphasised the importance of girls getting good reproductive health advice and also thought GPs would benefit from better guidance enabling immediate referrals. Martin stressed that too many girls don't understand what is normal when it comes to the menstrual cycle, and therefore are not getting help when things aren't right.
This was a great, eye-opening discussion that highlighted all the good work that has been going on in educating young people on fertility issues. The clear take-home was that the young need to understand the impact of their lives today on their future.
PET is grateful to the Scottish Government for supporting this event.