Local health care community leaders and agencies want to help reduce statewide rates of teen pregnancy, as well as support young families through the struggles they face when dealing with unplanned pregnancy.
They feel that a key part of handling the issue is by promoting responsible adolescent reproductive health, including abstinence, and providing them with confidential health care, plus giving youth information about sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, and the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, better know as AIDS.
By failing to offer this information to young adults, they said the risks of youths contracting an STI or of having an unplanned pregnancy increase, and put them in danger of poor health and educational outcomes not only for themselves but for their children.
Led by the Rhode Island Alliance (RIA), a non-profit organization that’s dedicated to the cause, more than 50 advocates gathered at the Rhode Island Department of Health yesterday morning and discussed their plan, “Changing The Lens: Reframing Teen Pregnancy Prevention Strategies.” According to the RIA, there have been nearly 23,000 teen births in Rhode Island from 1991 to 2008.
Dr. Patricia Flanagan, the RIA Chair who is also the Chief of Clinical Affairs at Hasbro Children’s Hospital and RIA, said Changing the Lens is a guide for planning programs, as well as a means of advocating for policy and educators to encourage healthy sexual behavior in Rhode Island’s youth. The plan acknowledges factors such as poverty, social disadvantages, racial and gender inequities, unmet mental health needs and early pregnancy.
Moreover, the goal is to teach teens, their parents and teachers that sexuality and sexual activity are “normal” human behaviors. She feels the most successful programs dealing with the issue address a comprehensive range of social and behavioral issues providing sex education.
“We want to focus on protecting young people from the unwanted consequences,” Dr. Flanagan said at the assembly. “This doesn’t mean we have to stand up and encourage young people to be sexually active at a young age. It means that recognizing it as part of life’s skill building.”
She said that because almost all people will become sexually active during their lives, part of growing up healthy is giving them tools to deal with it.
Flanagan said the plan focuses on eight primary recommendations to reduce teen pregnancy. In addition to redefining teen pregnancy as a public health issue and giving youths accurate, complete information and access to confidential health care, as well as factoring in social determinants of health, they also want to focus attention and resources to older youth. They would to see more health centers in colleges, including community colleges and vocational schools, so students have access to medical care, including contraceptives and STI screenings.
Further, the plan encourages developments that would assist youth in foster care, plus provide long-acting reversible contraception counseling to women who have early pregnancies to reduce more unplanned pregnancies.
The plan also seeks to improve school-based health and family education through training programs for health educators so they have accurate, up-to-date information. Further, it asks school districts to aid young parents with continuing their education and making the process as smooth as possible. It requests the same process for young parents who seek secondary education, GEDs and vocational programs, as these tools are essential to their economic success. Finally, the plan looks to increase the number of youth development strategies in programs, especially in rural areas.
After Flanagan spoke, a panel discussion with five community leaders shared their sentiments in support of the plan. Amy Stein of AIDS Project Rhode Island served as event manager and moderator.
“It’s exciting to be in a place where adults recognize that this isn’t just a young person’s problem,” said Erroll Lomba, the Director of Youth Programs for Youth In Action, a local partnership between youth, adults and community members who wish to create positive social change. “Teen pregnancy is a community issue and we need to work together as a community to help make people chose better decisions.”
Panelist Adeola Oredola, Executive Director of Youth in Action, said that not only are adults invested in the issue, young people are as well.
“They want to mobilize other young people in the community to do something about it,” she said. “We see it as a responsibility to educate other people who don’t believe it and change some of the realities going on right now.”
Anne Maria Silvia, an HIV/Sexuality Specialist for the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, agreed. She also said the plan is reflective on changes that need to be made as far as education is concerned.
“Teen pregnancy affects school dropout rates, academic achievement, contributes to bullying and relates to the transmission of HIV, which also contribute to dropout rates and academic achievement,” Silvia said.
Dr. Sarah Fox, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Women & Infants’/Healthy Kids Rhode Island who also teaches at Brown University, said it’s important to help adults as well as youth make good choices for their health.
“I see women in their 40s who still don’t have an understanding of how their bodies work,” she said.
While Ana Novais, the Executive Director of Health, Community, Family and Health Equity for RI HEALTH, said that Rhode Island has the lowest teen pregnancy rates in New England, the United States has the highest rates in the world. Nevertheless, she is optimistic progress will be made.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge we can take on together to change the course of it,” said Novais.
RIA received support from The Rhode Island Foundation and YWCA Northern Rhode Island to develop the statewide strategic plan. The mission is to increase awareness of teen pregnancy and parenting in Rhode Island and to gather, maintain and disseminate data related to these issues.