Gaston County’s teenage pregnancy rate has fallen more than 60 percent over the last decade. The number of pregnant teenagers here has been progressively lower for nine consecutive years, but a newly released report from a statewide nonprofit caught even local health officials off guard.
Last year, 187 girls and young women ages 15-19 reported pregnancies in Gaston County, according to the report from Sexual Health Initiatives for Teens NC. That’s roughly a 14 percent drop from 2015, when there were 214 pregnancies recorded in the same age group.
“We were honestly pretty surprised by this year’s numbers,” Steve Eaton, the Gaston County Department of Health and Human Service’s public health director, said in a prepared statement accompanying the statistics. “The rate has been trending down, but we were thrilled to see another huge decrease bringing us even closer to the state average.”
Gaston’s teenage pregnancy rate is roughly 28.2 pregnancies per 1,000 girls and young women in the 15- to 19-year-old age group, which is less than 1 percent higher than the state average. The numbers show reduced pregnancy rates across racial and ethnic backgrounds and fewer repeat pregnancies statewide.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 50 percent of teenage mothers earn a high school diploma by the time they’re 22, and children of teenage mothers have increased likelihoods of dropping out of school, developing health problems and facing hurdles to employment.
The numbers at a glance
Durham-based SHIFT NC’s data is based on statistics from the state Center for Health Statistics.
In North Carolina, there were reportedly 9,225 pregnancies in that 15- to 19-year-old age bracket last year. That amounts to a teenage pregnancy rate of roughly 28 in 1,000. Twenty-two percent of the teenagers had been pregnant before.
Most of the pregnancies – 6,745 – were experienced by 18- and 19-year-old women, and 2,510 were juveniles. All told, it’s a 7 percent decline from 2015. North Carolina ranks 22nd in the nation in teen pregnancies. About 7,250 babies were born to teenage mothers in the state.
All told, slightly less than 3 percent of North Carolina’s 15- to 19-year-old girls and young women experienced pregnancies in 2016, according to the nonprofit.
Locally, Gaston County ranks 43rd in the state. The rate here is substantially lower than in Cleveland County, which ranked 24th in the state at a rate of 36.1 per 1,000, slightly lower than Mecklenburg (30.1 per 1,000), but higher than Lincoln County (25 per 1,000).
Gaston’s rate is tied with that of Macon County, which borders Georgia on the very western end of the state.
Swain County, which shares a border with Tennessee near the Nantahala River, has the state’s highest rate of teen pregnancies. There, 24 teen pregnancies gave it a rate of 55.7 per 1,000. The lowest ranking, at 7 teen pregnancies per 1,000, is Watauga County, which is home to Boone.
SHIFT NC’s rankings go through 69 and do not include 23 counties in which there were fewer than 20 teenage pregnancies reported. Several counties tied.
In 2007, there were 519 teenage pregnancies reported in Gaston, and the county ranked 28th in the state, according to the nonprofit.
The CEO of SHIFT NC, Traci Baird, attributes much of the overall reduction in the state to programs aimed at educating teens.
“We owe so much of our success to young people who are continuing to make smart choices about their health,” Baird said in a statement accompanying the statistics released by the nonprofit. “One of the best moves we can make is to continue working to [sic] them with the education, health care, and support they need to grow up healthy – and to keep this momentum going.”
Locally, Gaston County’s health department offers several teenage pregnancy initiatives, including a safer-sex education program for young people, a program aimed at helping middle-schoolers better understand personal boundaries and resist peer pressure, its Teen Wellness Center and programs for both teenage and adult parents.
Baird called the reduced teenage pregnancy rate in the state “one of North Carolina’s biggest health successes,” but said she was worried cuts to public health programs focused on the issue could stop or even reverse progress. Earlier this year, the Trump administration slashed about $200 million in funding for such programs by ending a series of five-year grants two years ahead of schedule.
Gaston County received recognition just a few years ago as one of nine counties in the country participating in a CDC-funded initiative to reduce teen birth rates on local levels. The Gaston Youth Connected project lasted from 2010-2015 and focused on increasing community participation in education initiatives and stoking involvement from young people. During the program, the teenage pregnancy rate decreased by 44 percent, according to the health department.
“We really believe this goes to show that putting resources in place and working as a community to address health issues pays off,” Eaton said. “We always say that change doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s encouraging to see that the foundation GYC laid is continuing to crate positive health outcomes for our youth.”