MTV, STDs and Sacramento teens

SN&R talks more with Raquel Simental about Sacramento teen pregnancy and STD rates

Raquel Simental, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Advocates Mar Monte, took a few minutes to talk to SN&R about teenagers, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

The national birth rate for teens is at a 70-year low. Is that holding true for California as well?

Yes. In fact, the news about the California teen birth rate reaching a record low came out last February, so the fact that the trend is nationwide is very encouraging. California leads the way in teen birth rate reduction, and what we’re doing here in California is the model for other states. We were the first state to refuse abstinence-only funding, opting instead to be a comprehensive sex-education state. [Senate Bill 71, the California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Act], which took effect in 2004, means that there must be information about HIV/AIDS and STDs in the curriculum.

Planned Parenthood teaches a comprehensive sex-education curriculum that includes abstinence, but we want to teach the whole range of information so that youth can make healthy choices.

The other thing that makes a big difference is Family PACT [Planning, Access, Care and Treatment] program, a California program run through the Office of Family Planning in the California Department of Public Health. This program pays for reproductive health care for those who do not have insurance, or for teens, who may have insurance through their parents, but may also want to access reproductive health care confidentially. They can go to any PACT provider and access family-planning services and STD screening and treatment.

How does the rate of STDs among teens in this area match up with the rest of California?

We have been consistently in the top five highest rates in the state, but the rate has dropped a little in the last reporting period. That’s for chlamydia only, though. Now, for gonorrhea, we still have the third highest rate in the state.

What will help lower those rates of STD infection?

It all starts with increasing awareness. That’s what Planned Parenthood does in the schools and in the community. Not all the schools take advantage of the curriculum we provide, though. And at Planned Parenthood, we also have a peer education program, where teens talk to other teens about the importance of testing and prevention.

So teens are avoiding pregnancy, but not avoiding STDs. What’s up with that?

That’s correct. It looks like we’re getting through to teens about preventing pregnancy, but they don’t worry about STDs as much as they should.

Now, the good news is that chlamydia and gonorrhea are treatable—although if left untreated, they can have very long-lasting affects, including infertility. But there’s also HIV, which has some treatments but can’t be cured. So teens need to know that preventing pregnancy is not the end of it and that, if they decide to be sexually active, they also need to pay attention to preventing STD infections.

This is a timely topic. MTV’s program, 16 and Pregnant, has brought the issue of teen pregnancy to the forefront. Mainstream media, like MTV, surprisingly is making an impact in some of the outcomes that we’re seeing. I think having shows like this available, in addition to the other programs, is having an impact on young people’s behavior.

It also provides a teachable moment for parents to have an open and honest conversation. We really encourage that, for parents to have these open discussions with their children.

Is there any particular program at Planned Parenthood that helps lower the teen birth rate?

Always, always the Teen Success Program, which works to prevent secondary teen pregnancies. If there is no intervention, research shows that one in three women under the age of 18 who give birth will have a second pregnancy within two years. Teen Success helps young women beat those odds. It provides weekly support groups to help teen parents stay in school, graduate and maintain their family size while learning to set goals for themselves and their children.