W.Va. has 10th-highest teen birth rate in US
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's teen birth rate has improved over the last year, but the gap between the percentage of teen mothers in the state versus the country is bigger now than ever.
For years, the number of teen births in West Virginia was trending slowly but steadily down, right along with national figures. But in 2006, the teen birth rate in West Virginia began to worsen while the national rate continued to improve. The disparity between the two became worse than ever.
New data from Kids Count, a child advocacy group, shows that in 2011, West Virginia's teen birth rate was 46.3 per 1,000 teens. That's far worse than the national average of 37.5 for every 1,000 teens.
If that trend holds, it means that one in every 22 teenage girls in the state will have a baby. West Virginia has the 10th-highest teen birth rate in the nation.
Even among counties, there's extreme disparity. Monongalia fared the best, with a teen birth rate at 14 per thousand. McDowell was the worst, with a rate of nearly 96 per 1,000 — that's more than twice the national average.
Experts can't be sure what's causing so many teens to have babies here, but socio-economic status and education levels are traditionally tied to teen birth rates.
Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director at WV Free, a Charleston nonprofit that focuses on reproductive rights, said that the hope is to use these figures to spur a broader conversation about teen health.
"We don't really think it's helpful to talk about teen pregnancy as though it exists in a vacuum," she said. "We need to talk about opportunities for youth and communities more broadly."
Pomponio said they typically see higher rates of sexual activity in communities with fewer opportunities — fewer jobs that pay well, fewer extracurricular activities or public transportation to get kids safely to and from those activities. When teens have things to do besides having sex, they have less sex. And less sex means fewer babies born to teenage mothers.
Kids Count is also pushing for officials to "fully implement the state's comprehensive sex education curriculum."
West Virginia's legislative code mandates sex education for grades 6 through 12, and outlines a comprehensive package guideline for what that education should entail: Sexual education must cover both abstinence and contraception, along with information on the negative outcomes of teen sex and HIV, and the life skills children need to avoid coercion.
The state Board of Education has recommended several evidence-based curricula that schools can use to implement this kind of education.
But beyond those mandates and recommendations, efforts to implement sexual health curricula are made on a local level.
"It needs to be that way," said Mary Wiekle, coordinator for AIDS, HIV and teen pregnancy prevention for the state Department of Education.
"Because especially with this topic you are reaching over into areas that touch on value systems, and the value systems in each of the counties are going to be different because the communities are going to have a different profile," Wiekle said.
But the breakdown occurs at the county and the school level, with administrators and teachers who are uncomfortable with the subject matter or too strained to give it the attention it deserves.
To counter that, the Office of Healthy Schools at the state Board of Education has created a professional development tool available to teachers online, focusing on contraception for teens. The tool tries to show teachers what to say to teens about sex and how to say it. For now, though, the module is languishing as it waits for a home — officials need funding for an Internet server to host the large module.
Despite the rise in teen pregnancy, other factors relating to the health of West Virginia's children have improved in the last year:
n The child death rate has been reduced by nearly 11 percent, from 24.6 per thousand in 2005 to 21.9 per thousand in 2011.
n The rate of child abuse and neglect has shrunk by 27.2 percent, from a rate of 22.6 per 1,000 children in 2010 to 16.4 in 2011.
n There was a more than 19 percent improvement in the high school dropout rate.
n The teen injury rate improved by more than 23 percent, from 70 per thousand in 2010 to 53.5 per thousand in 2011.
Contact writer Shay Maunz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4886.