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August 30. 2014 9:22PM

Teens well-PREP'ed in NH concerning pregnancy

The name says a lot.

PREP is a federally funded program aimed at preventing teen pregnancy; the acronym stands for Personal Responsibility Education Program.

The state Department of Health and Human Services awards grant funding for PREP in Manchester and in Sullivan County. Both areas have the highest rates of teen births in the state.

Sarah Ake is the PREP coordinator at Child Health Services in Manchester. "We're not just sitting the girls down and saying 'don't do this,'?" she said. "We're looking more at what's going on around them.

"We talk about values and what's going on in society and what pressures they receive as teenage girls around sex."

Ake said there are still a lot of pervasive myths among teens ("you can't get pregnant the first time"; "having sex standing up - or in the ocean - prevents pregnancy.") "We always ask our girls, 'What have you heard?'" before providing the facts, she said.

She gives young women today a lot of credit; many are choosing abstinence or setting rules to protect themselves. And she said that's happening despite a society that often portrays sexual activity as the norm.

"Girls are getting messages every day implying that girls are sexually active when it's not true," she said. "There are a lot of girls who are waiting."

The most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, taken anonymously by high school students every two years, found that the percentage of New Hampshire teens who reported having sexual intercourse has declined in the past two decades.

In 2013, 42.8 percent of students here said they had had sex. In 1993, that percentage was 54.3; in 2003, it was 41.5.

About 200 girls have participated in PREP sessions in Manchester over the past two years. The biggest challenge is reaching girls who could benefit from the information provided, Ake said. "Once we get the girls here, they stay with us," she said.

Willow Moryan administers PREP for Good Beginnings of Sullivan County, working closely with local schools and community-based agencies to reach teen girls. She said the program is a lot more than "sex ed."

"It's providing young people with a toolbox of choices and information so that they can make healthy decisions and reduce those risk-taking behaviors based on knowledge," she said.

"We talk about abstinence as a method of reducing risk-taking behavior, just like we talk about the pill and the IUC," she said, referring to intrauterine contraception.A nurse-midwife, Moryan said she's a proponent of long-acting, reversible contraception methods (LARCs) such as IUC for sexually active young people "because you don't have to remember to take a pill every single day."

She said IUCs on the market today are "very safe and effective and indicated for young people," adding that the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the American College of Nurse-Midwives endorse their use for teens.

But she stressed such methods do not prevent sexually transmitted diseases, noting Sullivan County has the highest rates of STDs in the state. That's why counselors advise using condoms in addition to LARCs.

While PREP focuses on reaching at-risk girls, Moryan said that's only half of the population responsible for teen births.

"Definitely, boys need to fit into the equation," she said. "I wish the state had included boys in their target populations when the PREP funding became available."

As in Manchester, poverty plays a role in teen pregnancy rates in Sullivan County, where low-income teens often don't have access to health care, Moryan said.

There's also a cultural element, she said. "We've consistently had high teen birth rates for years," she said.

Still, the latest state data shows the teen birth rate dropping in Sullivan County. The teen birth rate in 2010 was 33 per 1,000 teens; in 2012, it was 20.9.

Moryan said the decrease in teen birth rates both here and nationwide is "hugely encouraging, because it means that things are happening, and there is change taking place."

Manchester teens who participated in PREP were recently surveyed about the program. One said the information presented made her decide "to keep my virginity as long as possible, cause I don't want to risk having kids or diseases."

Another teen said she learned "you can go without having sex, and if your partner really cared he/she would wait."

And a third said the most important thing she learned is that "there are a lot more rights and a lot more resources available than most teens know about."

swickham@unionleader.com


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