Around 95 per cent of Britons believe that the country is in the grip of a teen pregnancy epidemic, a myth that ministers and health agencies have warned is 'normalising' pregnancy amongst under 16's and pushing up teenage pregnancy rates, the Independent has learned.
An Ipsos MORI poll found that almost a quarter of 15-24 years olds believe four out of 10 under-16's fall pregnant each year in the UK: the real figure is less than 1 per cent.
Children and Young People's Minister Kevin Brennan warned that overestimating the number of teens that get pregnant could have dire consequences for teen pregnancy levels in the UK, which are already the highest in Europe.
"It's concerning that young people have the wrong picture of teenage pregnancy rates – we need to do all we can to raise aspirations and show young people that pregnancy is not inevitable" said Mr Brennan.
The vast majority of the general public massively overestimated the numbers of teenage pregnancy in the UK, with only 5 per cent of those surveyed able to accurately estimate the rate of teenage pregnancy in the UK.
"With barely a week going by without a media story about teenage pregnancy, it's not surprising that the public believe it to be much more common than it actually is" said Simon Blake, Chief Executive of leading sexual health charity Brook.
"This is particularly confusing for young people who may well think that teenage pregnancy is normal. It also fuels the myth that teenage pregnancy is escalating and nothing can be done" said Mr Blake.
The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 44,768 girls aged between 15 and 17 fell pregnant in 2006. In 1998 44,119 teens fell pregnant – meaning there has been a fall in real terms of 12.6 per cent.
However, this reality contrasts starkly with the public perception of the situation. Over 80 per cent of people surveyed by Ipsos believed that the rate of teen pregnancy had increased in the last 20 years.
"The teenage pregnancy rate is at its lowest point for 20 years. But statistics can often be difficult to understand and people can often confuse rates for percentages" said Julie Bentley, Chief Executive of the Family Planning Association.
"It's important that all information about sexual health is presented clearly so that young people, teachers, parents, practitioners and policy makers all have accurate information about sexual health and that the reality of the situation is not distorted or made to look worse than it actually is" said Ms Bentley.
While sexual health organisations insist that we should not exaggerate the problem of teenage pregnancy in the UK, others are quick to point out that the rate is much higher than that of our European neighbours.
"Our teen pregnancy rates are astronomical" said Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire.
"The media have a responsibility to let the public know that our country has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe, and as politicians, we have a responsibility to identify it as a problem and address it as such" said Ms Dorries.