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Report Urges Coordinated Community Effort To Combat Teen Pregnancy, Sexually Transmitted Disease

Oct. 8, 1999 -- The Task Force on Teen Pregnancy Prevention today called for a broad-based, coordinated community effort to combat teen-age pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. The call to action comes in a new report that examines current programs in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area and offers a blueprint for action, building on proven programs.

"Our report recommends feasible, cost-effective steps, starting with existing programs and including roles for every sector of society — families, churches, schools, businesses, service groups and health care professionals," says Jack Marshall, a retired international consultant on family planning. Marshall chaired the task force that includes professionals from a wide range of community groups and half a dozen faculty members at the University of Virginia.

"We’ve made progress but we need to do more," Marshall says. "Even one unintended teen pregnancy is too many."

How big a problem is it? One million American girls got pregnant in 1997. Three million American teens are infected each year with STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases). Though parents may not want to believe it, roughly half the teens in U.S. high schools have had sexual intercourse.

In Charlottesville, 45 girls aged 10-17 became pregnant in 1997. In Albemarle County, 40 girls 10-17 became pregnant the same year.

The human cost of teen pregnancy and births to teen mothers has grown in the past 50 years, as fewer and fewer teen-age couples marry. This places the burden of raising an unplanned child on the teen mother and her family, the report notes. Teen mothers often drop out of school, leading to a lifetime of low-paying jobs or welfare. Poor parenting skills often hurt the children, creating developmental problems that schools and other agencies then need to address.

The total cost to American society — in lost tax revenues, welfare spending, health care for children, foster care, criminal justice — was estimated at $15 billion annually by the national report on teen pregnancy, Kids Having Kids, released in 1996. This figure does not include the personal and financial costs to teens, their children, and their families.

On an individual basis, the cost of an unplanned birth to a teen-age mother is estimated at $37,000.

The Charlottesville-Albemarle County community currently spends about $230,000 a year on teen pregnancy prevention. The report recommends a 60 percent increase in annual spending, to $550,000, which would lead to savings estimated at $1.4 million annually.

"We already have a number of small, effective programs in our community," said Steven Stern, professor of economics at U.Va. and task force member. "Everything we know about them suggests that expanding them would be a wonderful investment paying the community back many times over."

Several of the current programs operating in the Charlottesville-Albemarle County area are excellent, the task force found. In particular, it cites the prevention programs Teensight and Reach at FOCUS, Camp Horizon and Young Guys of Distinction at MACAA, and Teens Give. Also, the report commends the reproductive health services available to community teens at The Teen Health Center at U.Va., Thomas Jefferson Health Department, and Planned Parenthood of the Blue Ridge.

But they are not enough.

The report calls for coordinated action, while recognizing the community’s diversity and the need for flexibility in implementing its recommendations: "We must strive for unity of principle while respecting the diversity of means," the report says.

The task force offers more than 50 recommendations to strengthen the community’s response to teen pregnancy and STDs. The recommendations for action are organized under: Families, Schools, Community Organizations, Health Care Services, Religious Organizations, and the Business Community.

Nine top priorities

The nine highest priorities, according to the report, are to:

    1. Expand proven programs of excellence
    2. Address the multifaceted needs of teenagers — social, emotional, and intellectual, as well as biological
    3. Improve communication about sexuality and reproductive health between adults and teenagers; emphasize prevention in the media
    4. Expand outreach to greater numbers of teenagers, not just those deemed high-risk, by increasing spending on cost-effective programs
    5. Create a position for a full-time professional to coordinate community efforts
    6. Offer support and educational opportunities to parents to strengthen their ability to articulate their values and communicate with children of all ages
    7. Ensure that a series of programs seamlessly covers the teen years
    8. Improve schools’ Family Life Education curricula and teacher training
    9. Encourage health care providers to play a more active role in educating teens and their parents about reproductive health

The report also calls for studies of teen sexuality — knowledge, attitudes and behavior — that would guide area agencies in planning and programming. There is a dearth of such data for the Charlottesville-Albemarle area, according to the task force.

Although teen pregnancy rates have declined slightly over the 1990s locally and nationally, still American teen pregnancy and teen birth rates remain unacceptably high — the highest in the industrialized world. In 1995, the birth rate per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 was 54.7 in the United States, 45.4 in Virginia, 58.5 in Charlottesville, and 19.7 in Albemarle County. In France the same year, the teen birth rate was 7.

Sexually transmitted disease

Sexually transmitted diseases are a related concern. While there have been no reported cases of HIV/AIDS among teenagers in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area, according to the Thomas Jefferson Health District, undetected cases are "likely," given the increase in the infected pool. Syphilis is a declining problem, particularly among teens.

But genital herpes and genital warts, two viral STDs, are increasing in the teen and general populations. Hard to track because they’re rarely reported, the underlying diseases cannot be cured by health care providers, although their symptoms can be treated.

The incidence of two bacterial STDs, gonorrhea and chlamydia, also is increasing, but they are easily diagnosed with simple blood tests and can be cured with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, these diseases, which have no obvious symptoms, can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility in young women.

In 1997-98, girls aged 10-19 accounted for 46 percent of the chlamydia cases and 32 percent of the cases of gonorrhea reported in Virginia. In the Charlottesville-Albemarle area, partly because of the sexually active college-age population, 50-54 percent of the total chlamydia cases and 37-42 percent of the gonorrhea cases were found in girls aged 10-19.

Addressing local concerns

The task force was created in response to a 1997 Charlottesville-Albemarle County town meeting on "Partners in Teen Pregnancy and STD Prevention," organized by a consortium of local groups concerned about teen-age pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Since then, the task force has built on research gathered by nationally recognized studies and conducted an exhaustive inventory of programs in the Charlottesville-Albemarle County area. The effort has received broad-based support from local government, the business community, not-for-profit agencies, youth groups, civic organizations and leaders in the medical and political communities.

Members of the small work group who prepared this report on behalf of the larger task force are: John F. "Jack" Marshall, retired international consultant in family planning; Joseph Allen, professor of psychology, U.Va.; Dyan Aretakis, project director, Teen Health Center, U.Va.; Cri Kars-Marshall, medical sociologist, Council on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention; Steven Stern, professor of economics, U.Va.; Mary Sullivan, family life education consultant, Council on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention.

For more information, call Jack Marshall, task force chair, at (804) 974-6390. The full report will soon be available online at: http://www.cstone.net/capp.

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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