A controversial scheme to provide over-the-counter contraceptive pills to teenagers in a bid to cut unintended pregnancies is being piloted in south London .
Three pharmacies in Southwark and Lambeth, which have the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Britain, are piloting the year-long scheme, which will allow young women aged over 16 to access contraception without needing a prescription from a GP.
Southwark, which in 2007 had almost double the national rate of teenage pregnancies, said the aim was to "increase access to contraception for sexually active young women who are not currently using contraception, particularly those who regularly use emergency contraception."
Jo Holmes, head of primary care delivery and development at NHS Southwark, said: "We expect the pilot to help young women who have not used contraception to access it easily and safely. In turn, we hope to see a reduction in use of emergency contraception and an increase in referrals to other services offering longer-term contraception."
As part of its teenage pregnancy stategy, the Government pledged to halve the number of teenage pregnancies by 2010. In 2007, the rate of teenage pregnancies in under-18s in England was 42 out of every 1,000 girls, with around half ending in an abortion. For Southwark, the rate is 76 out of every thousand – or one in every 13 girls. Both Southwark and Lambeth aim to reduce this by 40 per cent to 60 per cent.
Despite the number of teenage pregnancies falling in many areas of Britain over the past 10 years, the UK still has some of the highest rates in Western Europe and experts warn that the Government may fail to reach its target.
Pharmacists taking part in the new pilot will undergo a three-month training course developed by doctors from Southwark PCT and King's College London over the past year.
Ridgeway pharmacy in Southwark has been offering consultations to young women visiting the pharmacy for emergency contraception over the past six weeks. The pharmacy said 50 had chosen to switch to an oral contraceptive.
Critics of the scheme doubt it would have any effect on teenage pregnancy rates. Mark Haughton, from the Christian Medical Fellowship, said: "We need to to work on the whole area of relationships – that is what is effective."