Arizona posts one of nation's steepest teen birth drops, but rate remains high

WASHINGTON - Teen births in Arizona plummeted 35 percent between 2007 and 2011, tying with Utah for the steepest decline in the nation, according to new numbers released Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that teen births nationally fell by 25 percent in the same period, continuing a decline that began in 1991.

In Arizona, the birth rate fell from 59.6 births per 1,000 girls between ages 15 and 19 in 2007 to 38.5 births per 1,000 in 2011. The drop was driven by a 46 percent decline in births to Hispanic teens in the state.

While the state's drop was sharp, the teen birth rate in Arizona was still 13th-highest in the country. The rates ranged from a high of 50.7 in Arkansas to 13.7 in New Hampshire.

Health officials hailed the drop in teen pregnancies as one of the "nation's great success stories of the past two decades," but they were unable to point to any one reason behind the decline.

Sheila Sjolander, assistant director of public health prevention services at the Arizona Department of Health Services, said the recession and increased use of contraceptives by teens are factors, along with "youth development programs that utilize evidence-based approaches to curb teen pregnancy."

"History has shown that when you have a recession, the birth rate declines," Sjolander said. "But it always comes down to an individual choice.

"There are situational factors that influence their decisions, but I totally give our young people credit," she said. "There seems to be a trend in people reducing their sexual activity and decreasing teen birth rates."

Bill Albert, chief program officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, pointed to the "magic combination of less sex and more contraception." He also said "peer influence, the ‘MTV effect' and increased education about HIV" are possible factors.

"Teenagers are keen observers of the world around them … Millions of teens have been watching TV shows like ‘Teen Mom,' which makes pregnancy much more of a reality for teens," Albert said.

He also said that education "about HIV has helped because it has gotten guys' attention in a way pregnancy hasn't" and that a general drop in the overall fertility rate in the U.S. has played a role.

Whatever the reasons, Albert said the CDC report shows the progress "that has been made is wide and deep."

He said the large drop Hispanic teen births in Arizona has partly to do with the "regression toward the mean," because the numbers were so high before.

"The steepest decline in Arizona has been among Hispanic teens in particular. But it's easier to bring the rates down if they are high to begin with," Albert said.

He said the CDC report proves that "it is indeed possible to improve on a good thing. It shows that challenging social problems that at one point seemed intractable is not so."

Sjolander agreed.

"I think it's fabulous," she said. "I'm very happy to see the trends are decreasing, we've been working very hard on it for so many years."

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