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.