Teen pregnancy rate leveling off in county, state

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   While adolescent and teen girls continue to be at risk for pregnancy, teen pregnancies are declining in Tennessee and across the nation.
   A possible result, according to a local health official, is an informed and even optimistic outlook by teens to sexual responsibility and their futures.
   "More are being responsible insofar as using contraceptives," said Terry L. Henson with the Carter & Johnson County Health Department. "Kids are feeling more like there is a future out there for them."
   Henson along with city and county public school counselors carry out programs under the Carter County Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (CAPPI) to educate students about sexual health and family planning.
   Legislation passed in 1991 mandated each Tennessee county with a pregnancy rate over 19.5 to implement outreach programs in an effort to lower teen pregnancy. The law called for implementing education programs in conjunction with each county's K-12 education system. Henson estimates she talked with more than 1,500 adolescents and teenagers last year.
   CAPPI included the "Young Moms" and "Anticipating Baby" programs to prepare future moms for issues ranging from labor and delivery to how to prepare baby formula. The department's "Family Planning Program" is open to anyone of child bearing age.
   Those preparatory programs drew women from all socio-economic levels, Henson says. An adolescent does not necessarily need the consent of a parent to attend the program, she says.
   Abstinence is a component of some pregnancy prevention programs, but not any one program's sole focus. Sex education classes taught in schools require written parental consent, Henson adds. She points out that moral guidance and support falls primarily to parents and a child's support system outside school.
   "Kids want important adults in their lives," she says. "I can provide first-hand information to them, but not moral instructions. That has to come from parents and churches."
   The adolescent pregnancy rate for Carter County girls was 13.3 per 1,000 females aged 10 to 17, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. The county ranked second among seven Northeast Tennessee counties trailing only Greene County's rate of 17.4.
   Adolescent pregnancy rates have decreased in Tennessee, but continue to be high. Tennessee's adolescent pregnancy rate dropped from 16.6 per 1,000 girls aged 10-17 in 2000 to 15.1 in 2001.
   Infants of teen mothers have a higher incidence of illness, low birth weight and infant mortality, according to TDOH.
   Interestingly, Henson says programs promoting sexual education and responsibility to adolescent and teenage boys have failed to get off the ground due to low interest.
   Classes for middle school and high school students explain sexually-related topics beyond pregnancy. Students are taught about the use of contraceptives to prevent sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS/HIV and how to deal with pregnancy in terms of their own physical health and that of their baby.
   Pregnancy is not the only worry for sexually active teenagers and young adults. The majority of sexually transmitted diseases occurs in people aged 15 to 29, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. By age 21, approximately one out of every five young people has required treatment for a sexually transmitted disease, according to the state Department of Health.
   State law also qualifies high school students who deliver a child during the school year for three hours of weekly homebound instruction by a licensed teacher throughout a six-week period of maternity leave. That can prove challenging, particularly given the course load of a student, says Meredith Trott, who coordinates Carter County Schools' homebound instruction program.
   "We work with the student and family because our goal is to get that child back in school and not have a dropout," said Trott. "There is nothing like being (in class). A lot of times when you are talking about a child that may have geometry or Spanish."
   Trott estimated a total of 15 students were served through the homebound program last school year. A major obstacle female students faced when returning to school was finding child care for their newborns.
   "Child care is always a problem," said Trott. "Students lack the economic resources to pay for child care."
   The supplemental food program, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) helps low-income pregnant and breast feeding women, infants and children with cost of food.