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A growing problem: Area's teen births on the rise
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By the numbers:

(Data as of 2007)

Jackson County: 73 births per 1,000 teens

Barrow County: 67 births per 1,000 teens

Georgia: 52 births per 1,000 teens

United States: 40 births per 1,000 teens

  • In Jackson County, 88 percent of teens agreed that teen sex was not OK, but 87 percent also said that if a teen is having sex, birth control should be offered.
  • The Jackson County Health Department estimated that 84 teen pregnancies were averted and $588,000 saved between January and December 2009 due to birth control services.
  • In 2007, the cost of all births in the Northeast Health District, which includes 10 counties, was $38.5 million. For teen births, it cost $4.6 million. Statewide, those figures were $983.4 million for all births and $131.6 million for teen births.

Less than five minutes into an episode of "16 and Pregnant," Whitney, a 16-year-old living in Rome, Ga., admits she’s both terrified and embarrassed of giving birth at such a young age.

"‘When I found out I was pregnant, I was embarrassed and afraid of what people would think about me,’" she said, sounding like a scared child.

Her embarrassment leads her to quit high school and spend most of her days hiding in her grandmother’s home. Even a trip to the mall causes anxiety over what her peers might think.

Now in its second season, the MTV series follows teens as they struggle to cope with becoming parents at a young age.

This episode follows Whitney’s struggle to deal with her pregnancy, find a place for her new family to live, pay for baby supplies, finish school and ease family conflicts.

At the show’s end, Whitney shares with viewers what many other young mothers might think at first.

"‘The truth is having a baby is more than I can handle at my age,’" she says, before the screen fades to dark.

The MTV series is not alone in its focus on teen pregnancy. The slew of TV shows, movies and real life news stories focusing on the issue, from "Juno" to Bristol Palin to the pregnancy pact between 17 girls in Massachusetts, raises the question of how prevalent teen pregnancy is in our society and how much the media influences teens’ opinions on pregnancy and sex.

But Sarah Peck, public information officer with the Northeast Health District, said teen pregnancy is a result of multiple factors.

"Although television shows and other forms of media can certainly have an impact on the attitudes and perceptions of teens (and adults), how a teen (or an adult) interprets what they see depends a great deal on factors that can vary widely between individuals," she said. "These factors include the individual’s self-esteem and self-image, education, and relationships (or lack thereof) with parents, partners and friends."

The district has now turned its attention to what may be a growing problem in Jackson and Barrow counties.

While some studies seem to suggest that the national teen pregnancy rate has decreased, the number of teenage moms in both counties is increasing.

The teen birth rate in Jackson County is the highest in the region, with 73 births per 1,000 teens (ages 15-19), according to 2007 estimates. Barrow County has the second highest rate at 67.

By comparison, Georgia’s teen birth rate is 52, and the United States is 40.

This increase has prompted the Northeast Health District to consider opening one of its Teen Matters clinics in the area.

The health district currently operates three clinics, two in Athens and one in Danielsville. The clinics offer a variety of services to 11- to 19-year-olds, from immunizations and nutrition to abstinence education and reproductive health and family planning services, said Peck.

"We are still very much in the preliminary stages with regard to the possibility of opening a teen clinic in Jackson County," she said. "We feel there is a need for such a clinic there, but resources are scarce."

Searching for a Solution

Peck said one reason for the increase may be related to the educational programs being offered.

"From 1998 to 2008, federal funding for abstinence-only sexuality education programs increased dramatically, and eventually the only sex education programs to receive federal funding were abstinence-only programs," she said. "These programs have failed to show a positive effect on the sexual behaviors of teenagers, and it is possible that the shift toward abstinence-only education may be partially responsible for the increase in teen pregnancy rates in recent years."

Meg Loggins, with Barrow County Family Connections/Communities in Schools, agreed. Loggins said she believes abstinence is the best preventive measure, but said it’s not always feasible.

"Abstinence prevents teen pregnancy. But if your child is having sex and you know your child is having sex, protection is the next best thing — female protection and male protection."

A telephone survey conducted by the Northeast Health District sampled 5,000 individuals about teen pregnancy prevention. In Jackson County, 88 percent agreed that teen sex was not OK, but 87 percent also said that if a teen is having sex, birth control should be offered.

In a later question that asked whether participants supported providing sexually active teens in their community with birth control, 71 percent said yes. But when asked if they believed their entire community would support this, only 26 percent said they thought it would.

Peck said this perception can create a problem when it comes to implementing sex education programs or services into a community.

"In this particular case, the minority of individuals who oppose providing birth control to teens happens to be very vocal, leading to the incorrect impression that the entire community feels that way," she said. "This may lead individuals who are supportive of such measures to be hesitant to discuss the matter or to show open support for programs, services, and policies that would facilitate the provision of birth control to teens, which is unfortunate."

A concrete solution to curving teen pregnancy remains to be found, and Peck said it will take a collaboration to solve the problem.

"Teen pregnancy is a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-faceted approach involving parents, the schools, the community, the media and society at large," she said.

Carman Peterson of the Barrow County News contributed to this report