Teenage pregnancy rates are much lower in areas where surgeries are staffed by a least one young female doctor, according to research.

A study, published today in The British Medical Journal, shows that teenage pregnancies dropped to 75 per cent of the expected rate if there was a female doctor under 36 years of age at the practice. In contrast, the availability of local family planning clinics did not affect the number of young girls who became pregnant.

Dr Mike Pringle, of the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham, who conducted the research, said general practices should try to provide a team that is as mixed in both age and gender as possible.

Although the findings suggest that female doctors may find it easier to discuss sexual matters with their patients, Dr Pringle believes that the differences may have more to do with teenagers' attitudes.

"Teenagers discussing sexual health matters probably find it easier to talk to someone of the same sex and closer to their own age," he said.

"For many, the older male doctor could be the same age as their father and if they have had unprotected sex or think they are pregnant this could create problems for them."

The researchers looked at the teenage pregnancy rates at 826 general practices in the Trent region between 1994 and 1997. This region has one of the highest rates in the country, with 45 of every 1,000 13 to 16-year-olds becoming pregnant.

* There has been a huge increase in the number of people suffering from the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhoea in the last year because of unprotected sex, according to figures produced by the Public Health Laboratory Service.