School programs and the availability of reproductive health services keep the Kenai Peninsula’s teen birth rate consistent with Alaska’s largest city, health officials said.
However, according to Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics data, the Peninsula has a higher teen birth rate than the national average despite three straight years of national decline. The consequences of teen pregnancy, such as higher likelihood of welfare use and child neglect, can have a negative effect on mother and child.
“Each school deals with teen pregnancy differently,” said Pegge Erkeneff, communications specialist at Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. “Although there’s reproductive health curriculum in all the health classes, the local communities — what they’re doing and what’s happening in their homes — is influential as well.”
The Peninsula’s birth rate in 2009 was 37.5 births per 1,000 teens aged 15 to 19. The rate is comparable to more urban communities on the Alaska road system, such as Anchorage, 35.2, and Fairbanks, 32.8.
“Our state has geographical barriers, creating an issue of access,” said Katherine L. Huffman, education manager at Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest. “One of the protective measures the Kenai Peninsula has is being on the road system.”
Statistically, Kenai’s teen birth rate is no different than Anchorage’s rate, said Brad Gessner, medical epidemiologist at the Alaska Division of Public Health. A better indicator of trends is vital statistics’ three-year teen birth rate. From 2007 to 2009, Kenai’s three-year rate was 33.1 and the state’s was 41.6. Add a risk ratio, which is an estimate of statistical variations, and the difference is significant, Gessner said.
“What it means is that Kenai has 20 percent lower risk of teen birth during that three-year period than Alaska,” he said.
Teens aged 15 to 19 totals 7.1 percent of the Peninsula’s population, which is similar to Anchorage’s 7.2 percent, according to 2010 data from the state’s Department of Labor. Health officials identified many risks and realities associated with teen pregnancy. Teens who are pregnant are at risk of not receiving adequate prenatal care—especially if they don’t have the support of their parents. Premature births and low-birth weight babies are also a risk for teens. And the consequences of teen pregnancy affect parents and children.
Teen mothers are less likely to complete high school with one-third receiving a high school diploma, and as a result, the mothers are more likely to end up on welfare, according to the National Institutes of Health. Babies born to teenagers are at risk for neglect and abuse because their young mothers are uncertain about their roles and may be frustrated by the constant demands of caretaking, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Kenai Alternative High school houses a teen parenting program that connects teen parents and expecting teen parents to resources and support opportunities. The program aids an average of 10 teens annually, said Loren Reese, Kenai Alternative’s principal. Homer Flex School in Homer houses a similar program.
The national birth rate for teens aged 15 to 19 has declined for the last three years and 17 out of the past 19 years, falling to 34.3 — a 9-percent decline from 2009 and the lowest rate ever recorded in nearly seven decades of collecting data, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Teen births in 2010 for the state, which vital statistics has yet to release, follow the national trend, said Sophie Wenzel, Department of Public Health adolescent health program manager.
Contributing to the Peninsula’s urban-like teen birth rate are health clinics that receive Title X funding. The U.S. government enacted the Title X Family Planning program in 1970. It’s the only federal grant program dedicated to providing people with comprehensive family planning and related preventative health services. Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic in Homer is a Title X clinic. Their reproductive health services include birth control consulting and supplies, sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment and pregnancy testing. The clinic offers sliding-scale payment methods, but many people can qualify for reduced or zero fees for reproductive services, Huffman said.
Planned Parenthood in Soldotna is one of the non-profit’s three Alaska clinics that receives Title X funding, which allows low cost or free services as well. Clinics in Juneau, Sitka and Soldotna receive such funds, but Anchorage and Fairbanks do not receive them. Barriers someone might experience regarding use of birth control include the cost of transportation to a clinic or pharmacy and shame or anxiety about being sexually active or having an exam, she said. Organizations related to Planned Parenthood lobby for pro-choice legislation and comprehensive sex education.
Newly released 2008 abortion data from the CDC show the decline in teen births is accompanied by a decline in abortions, suggesting that overall the teen pregnancy rate is going down, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit working to advance reproductive health. The CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth links the decline to improvements in teens’ contraceptive use. KPBSD chooses not to show its K-12 students how to use contraceptives. However, high school students are taught about contraceptives, said Betty Miller, a nurse at Skyview High School in Soldotna.
“Students are taught from age-appropriate, developmental-appropriate (stages) about their reproductive systems,” she said. “And obviously as they mature they get different information.”
Reproductive health curriculum varies in communities around the state. Miller created the health curriculum for KPBSD taught at all school levels, which the district implemented in the early 1990s. High schools require students to take a ninth-grade health course, unlike the Anchorage School District, which doesn’t have a requirement for health to graduate. Abstinence is also promoted — by mandate — at the district’s schools. The teachers decide how long to spend on reproductive health, Miller said.
“They are very aware of the sensitivity of this issue and will often have it toward the end of the semester or the upper grades of elementary toward the end of the school year when the students will be more comfortable with the material,” she said. Many factors impact teen pregnancy, such as education and poverty level, and although sexual education in the state is improving it’s still very dependent on where teens are, Miller said.
“What teacher you have and what district you’re in,” she said. “The availability of information on puberty and bodies and healthy relationships and contraception is pretty varied. It is not entirely meeting the needs of Alaskans.”
KPBSD is vast and diverse, Erkeneff said. It has 44 schools. Central Peninsula Hospital had 35 teen births in 2010, from girls aged 14-19. The number has visibly decreased from the 1980s and ’90s, said Gypsy Jolly, nursing director at CPH.
“I’ve worked here since 1980,” she said. “The numbers have gone down. Over the past 10 years it has definitely gone down.”
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.