Teen pregnancy still a problem in Suffolk

Published 8:41 pm Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It is not someone else’s problem anymore.

The teenage pregnancy rate in the city of Suffolk is higher than the average rate of teenage pregnancy for the entire Commonwealth of Virginia.

“They’re definitely higher,” said Dr. Lisa McCoy, director of the Western Tidewater Health District.

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According to statistics from 2007, the city of Suffolk averages 30.3 births for every 1,000 teenage girls. Virginia averages 27.2 for every 1,000 teenage girls.

The city’s teen pregnancy rate remains lower, however, than that of most other cities in Hampton Roads.

Norfolk and Portsmouth both have rates around 48 pregnancies for every 1,000 teenage girls, while Franklin’s rate is the worst in the area, at about 53. Isle of Wight, with a rate of only 23.4 pregnancies for every 1,000 teenage girls, and Virginia Beach, with a rate of 29.1, led the area in preventing teen pregnancy.

The problem locally mirrors a much larger trend nationwide. According to FamilyFirstAid.org, the United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy and births in the western industrialized world. More than a third of young women become pregnant at least once before they reach the age of 20, which equals about 820,000 early pregnancies a year.

McCoy said the prevalence of teenage pregnancy here in Suffolk led the Obici Healthcare Foundation to give the Western Tidewater Health District a grant last year to help address some of the issues related to teenagers having children.

“We would prefer that they delay getting pregnant until they’re in a situation in life where they can bring that child into a healthy, prepared environment,” McCoy said. “That’s really our goal.”

For the past year, the district has been working in several areas to better provide for teens and young mothers. First, the district has been increasing prenatal care for young moms.

“For a lot of women in our district, we’re seeing a lot of high infant deaths, low birth rates and complications because the young women need some support in terms of medical care coordination, early intervention for medical care or social risk factors,” McCoy said. “If we can provide that support, we tend to have better outcomes for infants.”

Providing that support early is also necessary to help end the cycle of teenage parenthood.

According to FamilyFirstAid, teen mothers are less likely to complete high school, with only one-third of mothers returning to school to receive a high school diploma. Teen mothers also are more likely to end up on welfare and never obtain post-secondary education.

In Suffolk Public Schools, Assistant Superintendent Kevin Alston said the school system is seeing some progress with pregnant students. Since 2005, the number of pregnant students has decreased by 25 percent, he said, and the retention rate has remained the same.

In the 2005-2006 school year, 45 students in Suffolk schools were pregnant, and only 19 returned to school the next year. In the 2008-2009 school year, 34 students were pregnant, and 19 returned.

Alston added that the school system is working on ways to keep these students in school and working toward bettering their future.

“One teenage pregnancy would be a problem,” Alston said. “When you have 34, that’s a bigger problem. What can we do to help ensure that these students who become pregnant finish school. Or if they don’t graduate, we work to help get them a GED or something that can help them move on.”

The Obici Healthcare Foundation grant money also has been used to help prevent young men and women from becoming parents. The Western Tidewater Health District has used the funds to help young women have more access to family planning programs and new initiatives to lower teen pregnancy.

“We’re trying to decrease the teen pregnancy rate by helping to build self-esteem in adolescent girls and encouraging delaying sexual activity,” McCoy said. “That’s really part of the Obici Foundation’s rationale for working with us in working with the program. They too saw they need, and we want to help fix it.”