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Teens now waiting longer to have sex

ORLANDO, Fla. – The number of teenagers having babies has declined sharply in the past several years nationally and in Florida, recently released statistics show.

The national birth rate for 15- to 19-year-olds reached its lowest level in more than a decade in 2005, according to a report from the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics released last month.

In Florida, the numbers show similar declines – the birth rate for 15- to 19-year-olds decreased about 27 percent from 1998 to 2005, according to data from the Florida Department of Health. In Central Florida, the rate decreased almost 23 percent during the same period.

Experts say less support of teen childbirth in society and increased awareness of the risks of unprotected sex have encouraged teens to wait longer to have sex and to use contraception when they do decide to start.

“The good news is that teenagers are learning,” said David Landry, senior research associate for the Guttmacher Institute, an independent nonprofit organization that focuses on reproductive health. “One, they’re having sex at a later age . . . and two, they’re more likely to use contraception when they do have sex.”

From 1995 to 2002, 23 percent of the decline in teen birth rates for 15- to 17-year-olds was because of delays in sexual activity, according to a 2006 report from Columbia University and the Guttmacher Institute. Increased and improved contraception use accounted for 86 percent of the decline among 15- to 19-year-olds, the report said.

The study analyzed data from the National Survey of Family Growth from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A variety of contraceptive methods and an increase in campaigns to prevent teen pregnancy are two reasons adolescents may be paying more attention, Landry said.

“Many of those methods didn’t even exist 10 years ago,” Landry said.

Locally, experts say programs have focused on preventing teen pregnancy and delaying when teens become sexually active. In Florida, the “It’s Great to Wait” campaign focuses on abstinence. It includes an interactive Web site and radio and television advertisements in English and Spanish, said Annette Phelps, director of the Florida Department of Health’s Division of Family Health Services.

For teens who have already become pregnant, Florida’s Healthy Start program works to help them maintain healthy pregnancies and avoid subsequent pregnancies, Phelps said.

Other programs focus on educating males about the responsibilities involved if they become fathers, as well as teaching girls how to avoid sexual abuse and coercive sexual practices by older men, she said.

Outreach workers say teens are willing to listen – if the information is presented the right way.

“There’s a lot more education out there; there’s a lot more information, and there’s a lot more outreach,” said Jenna Cawley, director of education for Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando. Cawley said the organization taught more than 8,000 teenagers about sexual health issues in Orange County public schools last year.

“They listen best when you treat them like adults and just tell them the truth,” Cawley said.

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