Teen pregnancy remains high in Mid-Columbia

PASCO — While teen pregnancy rates are declining statewide, a handful of rural counties in the Mid-Columbia continued to be among those with the highest rates last year, with some seeing an uptick in numbers.

The state Department of Health on Thursday released data from 2009 showing the state average for pregnancies among 15- to 17-year-old girls had dropped to 24 pregnancies per 1,000 teens from 26.7 in 2008.

State health officials said factors in the declining rates could include safe sex practices, abstinence and increased availability and acceptability of contraceptives.

But in the Mid-Columbia, a couple of counties saw pregnancy rates among 15- to 17-year-olds rise from 2008-09.

Adams County continued to rank first in the state for teen pregnancies, with 73 per 1,000 teens in 2009. That's up from 67.5 in 2008.

Yakima County ranked second, with rates holding relatively steady at 54.2 per 1,000 in 2009 compared with 54.6 in 2008.

Franklin County came in third, with 51.8 pregnancies per 1,000 teens in 2009, up from 50.5 in 2008.

Grant County was fourth, with a rate of 50.5 per 1,000 in 2009. The county's 2008 rate was 50.9 per 1,000.

Benton County showed a significant drop, going from 30.7 pregnancies per 1,000 teens in 2008 to 22.6 per 1,000 in 2009.

Walla Walla County also saw a drop from 28.8 per 1,000 in 2008 to 21.3 in 2009.

Carla Prock, maternal child health nursing supervisor for the Benton-Franklin Health District, said Franklin County's rates likely remain high because of the younger and predominantly Hispanic population in Pasco.

"In general, it's culturally often more acceptable to become pregnant younger in the Hispanic population," Prock said.

Gina Popovic, executive vice president for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, said lack of access to education and reproductive health services in rural areas also contributes to high teen pregnancy rates in the Mid-Columbia.

"Like all public health concerns, these things are regional," Popovic said.

Both Prock and Popovic said teen pregnancy is a public health issue.

"Access to care and rising teen pregnancy rates are indicators of health," Prock said. "If we look at the facts that when teens are younger and they become parents they are less prepared to parent, they are less likely to stay in school, they are more likely to live in poverty -- that all leads to challenges for raising children. ... If they have less education parents and live in poverty, they are less likely to become healthy citizens."

The health district works with local school districts on prevention education and on parenting classes for teens who do have children.

Prock said the health district and schools also show them how to get access to subsidized childcare, nutrition and public health services.

Popovic said a coalition of six regional Planned Parenthood organizations recently was awarded a $20 million grant to provide teen outreach in the Northwest over the next five years in hopes education will help reduce pregnancy rates in some of the places where numbers have been the highest.

"We're really hoping we'll be able to take a different approach," she said.

In addition to education about birth control, the grant will fund programs to help teens who are considered at-risk to graduate high school and have the skills they need to become successful adults.

"It's a more holistic approach," she said.

-- Michelle Dupler: 509-582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com