Why the health of adolescents matters

Their future well-being is at risk amid pregnancies, substance abuse

In Summary

• Adolescents are reeling under the pressure of ailments that cause health burden

• More needs to be done to encourage the demographic to make smart decisions

Members of teenseed
Members of teenseed
Image: Courtesy

Addressing the needs and vulnerabilities of adolescents is fundamental for ensuring the long-term health of future generations.

Almost every family has an adolescent struggling with a variety of developments, including biological, social, educational and further evolution of the brain and mind. Utmost support is of critical importance to enable them go through the transition processes while acquiring essential values as they develop.

Adolescence is broadly defined as the period marking the transition from childhood to adulthood, usually between ages 10 and 19 years. With about one in every four Kenyans being an adolescent, growth of this segment of the population has maintained an upward trend in the last decade. Adolescents are by and large a physically well population, and their health needs easily fall through the cracks.

Adolescence is notable because it co-occurs with puberty, a biological phase characterised by hormonal changes and the development of secondary physical features. What differentiates adolescence from other periods of human growth and development is its association with increased risk-taking behaviours, which is easily influenced by emotional states.

Exciting and influential bodies of science are now focusing on understanding how children navigate this transition, how they respond to the challenges presented by the transition, and what types of protective factors may be especially important for adolescents during this developmental period.

Many health-related behaviours that emerge during adolescence have consequences for current and future health and development. Adolescence provides an opportunity to promote healthy lifestyles that will have far-reaching consequences in adulthood. This includes cultivation of healthy interests beyond school and employment, such as keeping fit, building individual mental resilience, engagement with positive family values, giving back to the community and wholesome eating habits.


Kenyan adolescents face major challenges in regards to drug and alcohol abuse. In recent years, minors have been arrested in several towns in Kenya for unsafe behaviour under the influence.

These matters continue to jeopardise adolescent development and also project into health-threatening alcohol, drug addiction and other related disorders later in life with substantial public health implications. Health workers have a responsibility to educate adolescents early on about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse at every opportunity.

Adolescent childbearing is another concern that remains prevalent in the country. Kenya currently has the third-highest rate of teenage pregnancies worldwide, with one in five adolescents aged 15 – 19 years already having had a child or pregnant.

Studies also reveal the major health risk of unsafe abortions for adolescent girls, with about 17 per cent of girls below the age of 19 seeking post-abortion care.

These findings portray the urgent need to improve education surrounding substance use and avoidance of adolescent pregnancy guidance to encourage adolescents to make smart decisions that positively impact their future health and well-being.

To advance global child and adolescent health, the UN 2030 Agenda highlights a predictive model, where child and adolescent health takes centre stage through the Sustainable Development Goals.

Some of the key areas of focus in this agenda include: Ending preventable deaths of newborns and children under five years; promoting mental health and well-being; strengthening the prevention and treatment of substance and alcohol abuse; and ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services.

To achieve these goals, Kenya national health and education policies need to align with these agendas to ensure that no adolescent is left behind. A balanced approach capitalising on interdisciplinary collaborations is paramount for promoting effective multi-sectoral partnerships that strengthen the best possible health outcomes for adolescents and, by extension, the country.

Dr Pauline Samia chairs the Department of Child and Adolescent Health at Aga Khan University Hospital

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