Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

February 8, 2013

Teen birth rates

More troubling news for Mercer, McDowell

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — The annual West Virginia Kids Count study has become somewhat of a topic of sore discussion for area health officials. That’s because the report has repeatedly — year after year — identified serious health-related challenges to the well being of youngsters in Mercer and McDowell counties. And the latest report released on Thursday continues this alarming trend.

An Associated Press review of the 2012 study found that the number of teenagers giving birth in McDowell County is soaring — having jumped by 34 percent in five years. The study shows a rate in McDowell of 96 births per 1,000 girls in 2010, which is the latest figures available. That’s 17 more births per 1,000 girls than neighboring Mingo County, and more than double the statewide rate. Trailing not far behind was Mercer County, which reported 65 births per 1,000 girls.

The AP review found that McDowell County’s teen birth rate is also seven times higher than the county with the fewest teen births. In Monongalia, it’s just 14 per 1,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19.

Kids Count Executive Director Margie Hale says the numbers are alarming.

She correctly points to the fact that teenagers who get pregnant are likely to drop out of school and live in poverty. Hale says the children also are at a higher risk of being born underweight and dying before their first birthdays.

Statewide the teen birth rate fell in 2010, as well as the national rate. So why is the teen birth rate rising in McDowell and Mercer counties while falling in other areas? That’s a question that officials in McDowell and Mercer counties are going to have to answer.

McDowell County also reported the state’s highest infant mortality rate at 16 per 1,000 live births, the report found. That’s a 50 percent increase from 2005.

McDowell County also ranked poorly in a number of other measures in the study, including the premature death rate, adult smoking, obesity and fatal prescription painkiller overdoses.

Teen pregnancy is one of the issues the new Reconnecting McDowell campaign is hoping to address. The joint public-private initiative is only one year old, and already has tackled issues ranging from broadband access, literacy programs and other health services. The campaign also hopes to address substance abuse, high dropout rates and other concerns in the months ahead.

But the Reconnecting McDowell campaign cannot reverse these alarming numbers alone. Help also will be needed from health professionals across the county, the McDowell County Commission, lawmakers such as Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, and others. In fact, the 2012 Kids Count study should be considered mandatory reading for officials in both McDowell and Mercer counties.

No longer can the findings of this annual study be ignored. It must be viewed as a call to action. Not only for McDowell County, but also for officials, health care leaders, lawmakers and others in Mercer County.

We must address these alarming statistics. And we should be doing everything in our power to ensure the well-being of children across our region.