Teen birth rate on steady decline in Alaska

The number of teenage parents in Alaska is continuing its downward trend.

Nationwide, the birth rate among teenage women 15-19 years old has declined dramatically since 1991, from 61.8 per 1,000 teens to 24.2 out of every 1,000 by 2014, according to a May 3 bulletin issued by the Alaska Section of Epidemiology. In Alaska, the rate is higher than the national average — 27.8 per 1,000 teens age 15–19 years — but it has fallen significantly from 42.6 per 1,000 in 2008, according to the bulletin.

The Gulf Coast region, which includes the Kenai Peninsula, now has the second-lowest rate in the state, with 20.9 out of every 1,000 teens giving birth in 2014. The Northern and Southwest regions led the state, with 63.3 per 1,000 and 53.0 per 1,000 teens giving birth the same year, respectively.

“Consistent with national trends, Alaska has made great progress in reducing the statewide teen birth rate,” the bulletin states.

The numbers are tabulated through data from the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics, which only includes live births. The numbers do not reflect miscarriages, stillbirths or abortions, said Katie Reilly, the adolescent health services coordinator for the Division of Public Health’s Section of Women’s, Children’s and Family Services.

The Section of Epidemiology attributes the decrease partially to increased availability in contraceptives. In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended long-acting reversible contraception as a contraceptive choice for adolescents who choose not to be abstinent. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act now requires that the contraceptive be covered, according to the bulletin.

However, the reason for the regional disparity in the state is still unclear, Reilly said.

“More research is warranted to understand and address the teen birth rate disparities in Alaska,” Reilly said. “What we know is that factors such as socioeconomic status in the state may contribute to these variations. The decline does actually decline with self-reported declines in sexual activity and abortions.”

Medicaid expansion may also help reduce births among teens by providing more access to family planning services, according to the bulletin. Alaska expanded Medicaid by an executive order from Gov. Bill Walker in 2015, and so has not had time to show results yet.

Medicaid benefits include family planning services and contraceptives, which may help decrease the rates of teen pregnancy, possibly because of the link with socioeconomic status, Reilly said. However, the state does not currently have a reliable way of determining how many teens are on Medicaid at the time of conception, she said.

Better access to high-quality education and family planning services, including contraceptives, may have played a role, said Jessica Cler, the Alaska public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands.

Better education can help teens learn to prevent pregnancy and to practice healthy sexual behavior, such as reducing the frequency of sex or the number of partners, she said.

Planned Parenthood also offers online services through video visits, in which patients can receive medical advice and birth control prescriptions, Cler said.

“Our biggest effort is through comprehensive sex education programs, and I think those are key in seeing the reduction in teen birth rates, and the availability of birth control and family planning services has added to that effort,” Cler said. “It’s part of our mission to have access to those planning services.”

Planned Parenthood offers sexual education at its four clinics in Alaska — Juneau, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Soldotna — and when representatives are invited into schools to teach, Cler said. The organization will only go into a school if it is invited, and the curriculum is tailored to the needs of the community, she said.

The Alaska Legislature has been seeking to curtail the role of abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood, in public schools during this session.

Though a bill that would have barred abortion providers from providing any education in public schools died in committee, a modified version would require anyone providing sexual education to have a valid teaching certificate and be employed as a teacher at the school or be supervised by a teacher. The curriculum and the person’s credentials would also have to be approved by the school board and available for parents to review.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Wes Keller (R-Wasilla), is intended to provide parents with more control over educational standards, according to the sponsor’s statement. The House passed the bill on Thursday and has now sent it to Gov. Bill Walker’s office for his signature.Cler said Planned Parenthood was disappointed with the passage of the bill. School boards will now have to approve every curricula brought in for sexual education by outside organizations, which will make it harder for students to access sexual education, she said in a statement.

“The next step will be to ask the governor to veto the bill,” Cler said in an interview. “Access to sex education is already limited in the state of Alaska, and there are already barriers to access (to health care) in our state.”

The state provides education curriculum to schools around the state, Reilly said.

Usually, the Division of Public Health tries to work with local community members who have established relationships, she said.

“Every district has local control of the curricula and the requirements for graduation for their particular district,” Reilly said. “That’s always been really important to Alaskans — having that local control.”

 

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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