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How can county reduce its teen-pregnancy rate?

August 04, 2005

On Tuesday, Aug. 9, at 1 p.m., Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel will participate in an online chat on The Herald-Mail's Web site at www.herald-mail.com.

Though Christoffel's agency deals with everything from septic tanks to personal nutrition, there is a good chance Tuesday's discussion will be dominated by a cause he's passionate about - the prevention of teen pregnancy.

On this subject, Christoffel is not crying wolf, because the statistics are truly alarming.

In 2003, Washington County had the fourth-highest birth rate in the state for mothers ages 15 to 19.

That was higher than the Maryland or U.S. averages and anyone who believe that's just a problem for the young mothers is wrong.

Christoffel said that in 2003, there were 185 children born to local women ages 15 to 19. Not all of those are welfare cases, but he estimated taxpayers shell out close to $400,000 a year for their care.

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And that's not the end of what teen pregnancy costs taxpayers. Because children born to teen mothers are more likely to remain indigent, have behavioral problems and be substance abusers, being born too soon may bring that child a "life sentence" of poverty and problems with the law.

In 2005, it is difficult to believe that many teens do not know that having unprotected sex puts the woman at risk of getting pregnant and exposes both partners to the possibility of sexually transmitted disease.

However, that seems to be the case. In 2004, 187 teen mothers who gave birth at Washington County Hospital were surveyed. Of those, 112 responded and 88 percent said the pregnancy wasn't planned.

Changing those statistics will require more than beefing up the school system's Family Life curriculum.

A group of United Way agencies has pledged to work on the problem, but as Edward Masood, the school system's supervisor for arts, health, physical education and athletics, has said, the culture must change as well.

"When you have a 30-year-old grandmother and a 15-year-old child with a 2-month-old baby, that's not good. It's a cultural issue of what's acceptable," he said.

Many in this community would like the issue of sex education to be handled at home, by the parents. That would be our preference, but it seems obvious that in many cases, the job isn't getting done there.

Couple that with teenagers' natural predisposition to believe "it will never happen to me" and the community has a big problem.

For a look a possible solutions, visit our Web site on Tuesday, Aug. 9, at 1 p.m. If you don't have Internet access, edited excerpts will be printed after the chat in The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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