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New sexual-health program focuses on girls in foster care

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Health professionals in St. Louis are paying closer attention to the sexual health of girls in foster care because data show that about half of them become pregnant or give birth while they are still teens, according to Dr. Katie Plax, a specialist in adolescent medicine at Washington University.

Plax leads the Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, which will address pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases among foster care girls in St. Louis and St. Louis County. The program should be fully operational by next fall. She says the pregnancy rate among these girls is comparable to numbers throughout the country. But the rate is still alarmingly high in light of St. Louis' overall teen pregnancy rate of 17 percent. The national average is 12 percent.

Plax says the girls will get medical services at the SPOT, Supporting Positive Opportunities with Teens, a drop-in teen health center where she is medical director. The center offers young men and women help with a range of issues, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In some cases, Plax says, girls in foster care were found to have been sexually or physically abused.

"Ongoing medical care was a huge issue," Plax said. "Some of these kids often have not seen a doctor for years, or even received checkups, or even had their eyes checked when they need glasses to read and succeed in school. Those are some common occurrences that we see."

Plax says the program would serve about 600 teens in foster care or aging out of foster care in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

"We will use a proven program with these young women to help them prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases," Plax says.

Health educators at the SPOT will use what's known as a safer sex intervention model, Plax says. It's a three-part program designed to increase condom use, reduce risky sexual behaviors and prevent recurrent STDs among female adolescents. The girls also will also be allowed to take part in the contraceptive choice project, a Washington University research study that involves free contraception. The girls also will all receive comprehensive medical exams to determine their health needs.

"Kids who go into this (safer sex) program tend to have fewer partners and fewer STDs," she says. "I feel that we're using the best evidence to affect the numbers. We're really determined to reach out to make it better for youths by giving them better health care and health advice."

Contact Beacon staff writer Robert Joiner. This story was written with the assistance of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, which is administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Funding for health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Worlds Apart

This article is part of a series that examines health-care disparities that persist in the St. Louis area, despite the fact that the region is blessed with some of the finest medical facilities in the world.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.