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Teen Pregnancy, Birth Rates Plummet Across D.C. Region

Maria Cruz joined the Teen Alliance for Prepared Parenting when she was pregnant with Katie, now 4. The Washington Hospital Center program's objective is to prevent subsequent pregnancies.
Maria Cruz joined the Teen Alliance for Prepared Parenting when she was pregnant with Katie, now 4. The Washington Hospital Center program's objective is to prevent subsequent pregnancies. "I have matured a lot," Cruz said. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)

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By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

Teen pregnancy and birth rates have dropped sharply across the Washington region in the past decade, with the District cutting its numbers by more than half to historic lows.

Arlington and Prince George's counties also have recorded striking decreases in both rates, which are among the most important indicators of children's well-being. And in virtually every jurisdiction, the trajectories have been particularly marked among African American teens, closing much of a once-intractable gap with white rates.

The reversals reflect national trends that have public health experts hopeful that programs and messages aimed at adolescents have hit their mark at last.

"We think kids are making better choices," said Donald Shell, health officer for Prince George's, where the birthrate for females age 15 to 19 fell by nearly a third between 1996 and 2005. "Our efforts finally are bringing forth some fruit."

The District has accomplished dramatic improvement. In 1996, its pregnancy rate for the same age group was 164.5 per 1,000. Appalled by the triple digits, a coalition of nonprofit groups and city agencies began reaching out to various communities, holding public discussions and trying to teach parents how to talk to their children about love, sex and relationships.

"The city was remarkably unified," recalled Brenda Rhodes Miller, executive director of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Advocates vowed to reduce the rate to the mid-70s by 2005. Instead, as statistics released this month show, it plunged to 64.4. The reduction in the birthrate paralleled that.

Rhodes Miller's new goal is "to cut that 64 in half. A double-digit teen pregnancy rate for the nation's capital is just not acceptable," she said.

Yet within the region's positive news are troubling details that could undermine the progress. Several jurisdictions still have what one health worker described as "extraordinarily high" rates. In others, figures are ticking upward again because of more Latina pregnancies.

"I can look at the numbers and be very concerned," said Darhyl Jasper, a public health nursing supervisor who heads Alexandria's teen pregnancy prevention program.

Alexandria, which began tackling the issue "way back in the '70s," was the only jurisdiction to have its teen birthrate increase over the most recent decade and managed a minimal decline in its pregnancy rate. "I cannot say why," Jasper said.

In a country with the worst rates in the industrialized world, officials have focused on teen pregnancies and births because of their distressing, lifelong ramifications.

Adolescent mothers frequently compromise not only their health but also their future, dropping out of school and struggling financially. Their babies are at greater risk for a host of problems, including low birth weight and abuse, neglect and poor academic performance.

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