HILO — Hawaii County teen pregnancy rates have seen a dramatic decline over the last five years.
In 2005, 3.5 percent of Hawaii Island girls between the ages of 15 and 17 became pregnant, according to Don Hays, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health. But in 2010, the most recent year for which the data is available, that rate dropped to 2.5 percent.
The Big Isle numbers are in keeping with a nationwide trend, with U.S. teen pregnancy rates reaching their lowest level in more than 30 years. Nationally, the average teen pregnancy rate for 15- to 17-year-olds fell from 5.2 percent in 2000 to a little under 4 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.
Here in Hawaii, “we’ve been very pleased with the declines we’ve seen at the state and county level,” Hays said.
The exact causes behind the changes are a bit of a mystery, however, he said.
“There are a lot of different theories about why it happens. But we can’t know for sure,” he explained.
Often, he said, experts will blame higher teen pregnancy rates on periods when the economy is suffering, because parents may not be able to provide as much supervision of their teens.
But, instead of seeing more births, “we’re seeing the opposite,” he said.
The drop in teen pregnancies may be due, at least in part, to increased focus placed on prevention programs, said Noella Kong, the state’s adolescent health coordinator.
“If you look back at the early ’90s, there was not that much of a concentration on teen pregnancy prevention way back then,” she said. “But from about ’95 on, federal administrations started putting in more effort in teen pregnancy prevention grants to the state, and we believe that has helped tremendously.”
One such grant, she said, has afforded the state the ability to contract with the Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to oversee a new program that would, in part, help to spread awareness about pregnancy prevention among teens.
While Hawaii Island’s teen pregnancy rates have shown a marked decline, they’re not all good news, he stressed. Health officials continue to be concerned about disproportionately high teen pregnancy rates among certain ethnic groups, including Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
Experts maintain that teen pregnancy rates are an important indicator in predicting future outcomes, both for mothers and their children.
“The costs of teen childbearing have negative effects on the life prospects of teen mothers and their families as well as the public’s investment in health care, child welfare and the criminal justice system,” reads a 2011 report on Hawaii County’s Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System. “Teen mothers are more likely to drop out of school, remain unmarried, and live in poverty. Their children are more likely to be born at low birth weight, grow up poor, live in single-parent households, experience abuse and neglect, enter the child welfare system, become teen parents, and be incarcerated.”
In response to the nationwide numbers, National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy CEO Sarah Brown said “the impressive declines in teen pregnancy have been both wide and deep. The rates have gone down in all 50 states and among all racial/ethnic groups. The steady declines in teen pregnancy represent one of the nation’s great success stories of the past two decades and the thanks go to teens themselves.”