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Insights from the IAAH 2017 conference on adolescent health

Photo: Pippa Ranger

GAGE researchers and programme staff, from London (UK) as well the four partner countries (Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nepal and Rwanda), took part in the conference. Here, three consortium members – Dr Guday Emirie (Qualitative Researcher, Ethiopia), Roberte Isimbi (Research Uptake and Impact Coordinator, Rwanda) and Sudeep Uprety (Research Uptake and Impact Coordinator, Nepal) – share their experiences and reflections.  

What did we expect from the IAAH 2017 conference?

We expected to learn new approaches and hear about best practices to accelerate action for adolescent health. We wanted to better understand the inter-linkages between girls’ physical health and their mental health, psychosocial wellbeing and nutrition – all of which we’re exploring through the GAGE programme. We were also keen to use this opportunity to disseminate our qualitative research findings from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nepal and Rwanda on adolescent health and gendered perspectives.

How were the sessions?

The sessions were very informative and participatory, giving rise to rich discussions. Presentations highlighted evidence on the physiological conditions (such as puberty) and external factors (such as conflict and forced migration) that affect adolescents’ health. Some good practices were also shared, such as building adolescent resilience as a means of thriving rather than just surviving. Some participants felt that the social and gender dimensions of understanding adolescent health were not adequately covered during the sessions.

“Most of the sessions focused on adolescent health from clinical and public health perspectives. It would have been better if gendered and social dimensions of adolescent health were given more attention to provide a comprehensive overview.” – Dr Guday Emirie

“I think more sessions could have been included surrounding gender themes such as gender norms or gender transformative approaches.” – Roberte Isimbi

A call for more evidence

During a special session, Lancet Commissioners made a strong commitment to generate and publish robust evidence on adolescents in forthcoming journal issues. George Patton, Chair of the Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing and also a GAGE ambassador, noted that current evidence on what works for adolescent health is ‘minimally sufficient’ – and urged academics and research communities to work together to generate more robust evidence to inform policy.Likewise, there was an awareness of the need to generate more evidence on what doesn’t work for adolescents.

“Dr Anthony Costello from the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted the need to move beyond the conventional approaches of evidence generation, citing an example of the need to conduct a randomised control trial (RCT) of ‘wicked adolescents’ or those showing deviant behaviour to know better what doesn’t work as well.” Sudeep Uprety

How did the conference help our work?

The conference gave us an appreciation of the need to engage with multiple stakeholders, recognising adolescent health as a truly multi-sectoral issue. In practice, this means using a range of innovative research methodologies to design and implement interventions tailored to each local context. Participants also made a commitment to use what we’d learned during the conference to reflect on current adolescent programmes and identify solutions to address current loopholes as a way forward, something we are doing through our longitudinal study.

“I learned a great deal about the need for engaging multiple stakeholders such as government officials, NGOs, young people, clinicians, public health practitioners, social scientists, researchers, and the media to address adolescent health problems in developing countries, including Ethiopia.” – Dr Guday Emirie

“I made contact with people who implemented innovative methodologies and I intend to liaise with them and seek more clarifications.” – Roberte Isimbi

“I will utilise the insights gathered here to observe adolescent programming in Nepal, the existing evidence gaps and possible way forward to address these loopholes for a comprehensive attention towards adolescents’ needs.” – Sudeep Uprety

What were the take-home messages?

  1. There needs to be more action: Adolescent health issues should be prioritised and meaningfully addressed in national and international health agendas.
  2. There needs to be more robust evidence to inform action: The dearth of evidence has been an obstacle to understanding what works and what doesn’t work in adolescent health. So there’s an urgent need to generate and disseminate robust evidence.
  3. Adolescents’ agendas must be championed by all and also by young people:Promoting adolescent health is a collective responsibility. Adolescents in particular need tohave the opportunity to share their views, perspectives and opinions on adolescent health and research community needs to get better at listening to adolescents.
  4. Adolescent agendas go beyond health: We must do more to find out how socio-cultural and gender norms interconnect with adolescent health issues.
  5. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution: Adolescents are a very diverse group, so we need to develop approaches that are tailored to each context to address specific country and community needs, including adolescents who are rural and urban residents, migrants, from displaced, refugee and conflict-affected communities etc.
  6. Engaging gate-keepers: Giving gate-keepers information about the costs of inaction can be useful in getting them more engaged in adolescent health.
  7. More focus on meeting adolescents’ psychosocial needs: Many interventions focus on treatment, ignoring psychological impacts of health problems.
  8. Tackling high rates of HIV: HIV prevalence among adolescents, especially girls, is alarming. The global community must do more to address this.
  9. Reaching those who are hard to reach: Adolescent and youth-friendly health services need to do more to reach adolescents living with HIV, drug-addicted adolescents, young people on the street, adolescent commercial sex workers and other vulnerable groups.
  10. Engaging schools and other educational institutions: Education plays an important role in supporting adolescent health. There should be more research into effectively designing programmes that target schools rather than individuals, as there is some evidence this can give rise to more sustainable results.