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Teen pregnancy inquiries surge at Tokyo center amid virus-related school suspensions

Obstetrician and gynecologist Sachiko Takahashi delivers a video on correct contraception methods in this image from a YouTube video.

TOKYO -- The number of pregnancy inquiries from those aged 10-19 fielded by a consultation center in Tokyo between March and May, when schools across Japan were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, was 1.8 times higher than during the same period last year, the center has disclosed.

Among those who contacted the "Ninshin SOS Tokyo" pregnancy consultation center, there was a marked decline in the proportion of young people thought to have used correct contraceptive methods. It is believed that this was partly due to students missing out on sex education classes, which are usually held toward the end of Japan's academic year. Efforts are now underway to increase young people's knowledge about sex through videos online.

"Ninshin SOS Tokyo" is operated by the incorporated nonprofit organization Piccolare, based in Tokyo's Toshima Ward, with professionals ranging from midwives to social welfare workers responding to phone calls and emails.

Between March and May this year, 213 of those making inquiries were aged between 10 and 19 --an increase of 1.8 times compared with the same period in 2019. Most of the inquiries were from those worrying that they might have become pregnant.

However, of those who'd had sex, the number of people using the correct contraceptive method -- such as putting on a condom before intercourse -- dropped from 51% last year to 32% this year. Thirty-six people who contacted the center said they had positive results when taking pregnancy tests and using other means to check pregnancy. The proportion of those who said they had not talked to anyone else about their situation rose by 14 percentage points to 68%. It is possible that the closure of schools made it harder for some youths to talk with their friends and others who are close to them.

It is common for sex education classes to be held for third-year students at junior high schools in March, shortly before they graduate. Kiyomi Matsushita, the 61-year-old director of Piccolare, said it was possible that students had lost the opportunity to receive correct knowledge through sex education, or had been unable to buy contraceptives due to a decline in their earnings from part-time jobs amid the coronavirus outbreak. She revealed that there were male high school students who contacted the consultation center asking if there was really a risk of pregnancy after they had sex without the use of contraceptives, and said, "There is a need to convey correct knowledge to children."

At high school, sex education is usually conducted before the summer holidays, but it is feared that such education may be put off this year, as regular lessons have been delayed due to the suspension of classes. Piccolare has produced a video responding to inquiries common among young people, and is set to release it as early as this month. It is also considering holding sex education with junior high and high school students in person using real contraceptives.

Other efforts to educate people though videos are underway. Obstetrician and gynecologist Sachiko Takahashi, a 45-year-old associate professor at Saitama Medical University, and other doctors launched an "OB-GYN sex education" YouTube channel in June, covering such themes as "What is the best contraceptive method for you?" and "What is an abortion?" The videos provide commentary with illustrations and diagrams.

Each year Takahashi receives over 100 requests for sex education lectures at elementary, junior high and high schools in Japan, but all of her scheduled classes up until June this year were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kiyomi Matsushita, director of the incorporated nonprofit organization Piccolare (Photo courtesy of Piccolare)

"There is a lot of wrong information on the internet, along with cases of non-professionals claiming to be experts disseminating information. There may be cases in which (young) people are worrying alone, unable to even consult with someone over the phone, and may miss the period during which they can decide whether or not to take the pregnancy to term," an apprehensive Takahashi said.

Doctor Takahashi has dealt with many cases of young pregnancy and victims of sexual abuse at the university hospital. One third-year junior high school student who heard a lecture by Takahashi approached the school saying, "I realized that the acts my father had performed on me from a young age could lead to pregnancy." She was subsequently taken into the custody of a child consultation center.

Takahashi views a delay in sex education in Japan as part of the problem. Under guidelines established by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the term "sexual intercourse" is not to be used up until junior high school, and even in high school, schools are not supposed to provide concrete details on methods of contraception and abortion. Yet sexual anime and adult videos can be viewed easily.

"There is a need to teach people from a young age to protect their bodies so they don't fall victim to sexual violence," Takahashi says.

With children who don't go on to high school due to various circumstances at home, Takahashi says there is a higher risk of pregnancy at a young age.

"Knowledge about sex is a life skill that people need in order to live. It has to be taught properly at an early stage of compulsory education," Takahashi says.

(Japanese original by Asako Kuroda and Fusayo Nomura, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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