The Massachusetts 2008 Birth Data, released last week, highlighted the continued disparity in the teen birth rates in many western Massachusetts communities. The information in the report underscores the continued need for comprehensive and sustained efforts to improve reproductive health outcomes for youth. The YEAH! (Youth Empowerment Adolescent Health) Network, a community coalition in Hampden County, uses advocacy, research, and community education to influence policy and practice in adolescent sexual health. Our response to the 2008 teen birth data will be ongoing: we view this year’s annual report from the Department of Public Health as an opportunity to go beneath the surface of the numbers and to explore several of the unanswered questions raised by the data.
The rates of both Springfield and Holyoke remain in stark contrast to the Massachusetts teen birth rate of 20.1 per 1,000. In 2008, for the fourth year in a row, Holyoke experienced the highest teen birth rate in the state: 115.3 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19. This represents a 21% increase from the city’s 2007 rate of 95.4 per 1,000. The YEAH! Network is developing research questions that will link these statistics to information about poverty and other demographic information, which will inform ongoing policy reform and other community intervention strategies. While we are encouraged by the 27% drop in Springfield’s teen birth rate for 2008 (61.4 per 1,000, compared with 84.3 in 2007), it is preemptive to suggest that this change can be attributed solely to existing programs in the city. The city of Springfield is in the early stages of making positive changes to address the teen birth rate disparity in the city: a city-wide task force addressing adolescent sexual health has been looking closely at these issues for a little over one year. In August 2009, the Springfield school committee approved a comprehensive sex education curriculum that began implementation this past winter. While these encouraging steps should certainly be applauded, there is still substantial work to do.
The Department of Public Health’s report is useful for providing a snapshot of where we have been, but it is not the whole picture. The take-away message is this: We are on the right track, and it is vital that we do not become complacent at this crucial tipping point. In Springfield, the school-based policies have only been implemented a few months ago. In Holyoke, the task forces are still forming. A coordinated and continuous effort, with full community participation, is the only way to achieve the conditions that foster adolescent sexual health: access to information and education; access to reproductive health services; and access to opportunity for the future. The YEAH! Network research team is excited to investigate the intersecting dynamics behind the data in the birth report, and to work with community-based organizations, local governments and schools, and community residents to create an informed, empowered, and engaged response to this health disparity.