DOH Addresses Teen Issues with New Program

Barrington M.Salmon | 5/23/2012, 3:56 p.m.

It's a well-known aphorism that healthy teenagers become healthy adults, and healthy adults are the backbone of a productive nation.

Yet in the District of Columbia, as it is in America as a whole, significant numbers of teenagers are beset by obesity and other health challenges, coping with the fallout from ignorance and lack of knowledge about sex and their bodies, and engaging in habits and behaviors that threaten not just their health, but also their well-being.

For example, nearly one in four teens in the District has more than one child and the average age of a teen mother in D.C. is 16. Also, babies born to teenage mothers are at a higher risk of dying before their first birthday, and these young moms have a much higher likelihood of dropping out of high school than their peers.

These are just a few of the realities that are the impetus behind a D.C. Department of Health-driven initiative called "I Care About Me." Health officials described this latest health push as an aggressive, comprehensive campaign designed to counter some major health issues local teenagers face.

"We have taken a different approach - earlier intervention," said Dr. Mohammad Akhter, the director of the D.C. Department of Health (DOH). "This is the first time we've had so comprehensive a [plan]. Normally, we start off when someone becomes pregnant. This is open-ended and ongoing. As students age, we'll be picking them up at the very start."

Akhter said the multi-agency campaign seeks to raise the awareness and knowledge of pre-conception health for District teens between the ages of 16 and 23. If they are healthy and delay sexual activity, their outcomes rise substantially. And he said if young women do become pregnant, at least they can be healthy.

"One of the big differences this time around is that in the past we have laid the responsibility on parents and the school system or gone to communities," said Akhter. "This is the first time we are making them partners. This is your opportunity to become knowledgeable."

He said parents and other partners will become the lead on issues involving young people, hold discussions among themselves and devise practical ways to help teens. All of this is a way to make the entire process of healthy living a proactive part of young people's lives and to give them the tools to take care of themselves.

Karen P. Watts, the bureau chief of DOH's Perinatal and Infant Health Department, reiterated the department's plan to deal with specific teen problems from a holistic point of view. That includes encouraging teens to eat right and stressing fitness; helping them to protect themselves in any sexual encounters they might engage in; getting them to go for annual health checks; not being afraid to ask for help; and focusing on getting a sound education and securing their futures.

These themes were repeated again and again at the teen health campaign launch titled "I Care About Me." The event took place at the Deanwood Recreation Center and Library in Northeast on Monday, May 21.