Campus News

How a USC professor is leading the fight to lower teen pregnancy rates

August 18, 2018
Luanne Rohrbach

A USC public health professor is making it her mission to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates in Los Angeles.

Luanne Rohrbach, PhD, MPH
Luanne Rohrbach, PhD, MPH, professor of clinical preventive medicine and director of USC’s Master of Public Health program

This post is part of our National Public Health Week series! We’re putting the spotlight a different area of public health each day. We hope you are as inspired as we are by the featured change-makers in this series.
Sex education may have come a long way in recent decades, but abstinence-only approaches and a lack of widely-available prevention programs mean teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease remain serious public health issues in many communities.
Luanne Rohrbach, PhD, MPH, professor of clinical preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, leads research focusing on teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease intervention and prevention. She has made it her mission to determine and deliver effective interventions that could reduce risky behavior among teens and improve their quality of life.

What inspired you to get involved in teen health behavior?

There are significant disparities in rates of teen pregnancies and STDs among youth in Los Angeles County. For many reasons, there are gaps in the delivery of prevention programs and services related to teen sexual health. I was drawn to it because it is an important issue that needs more attention from the public health community.

What are your goals in health behavior?

Broadly, I am committed to improving the health and quality of life among youth. In terms of this study, we are focused on improving the health of youth who live in areas of LA County where there are elevated rates of teen pregnancy and STDs.

What types of activities does your work entail?

Currently, I am leading a project called “Keeping it Real Together.” Keeping It Real Together is a federally funded program led by USC in collaboration with the LA County Department of Public Health, LA Unified School District, Compton Unified School District, Soledad Enrichment Action school system, Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, Vision y Compromiso, and other community organizations. Since 2010 we have conducted an intervention that includes supporting delivery of evidence-based sexual health education curriculum in schools, delivery of parent workshops in community settings, dissemination of information guides to youth-friendly clinic services, support of school-based condom availability programs and community mobilization related to teen pregnancy and STD prevention. As the lead organization for the project, we are coordinating implementation of the intervention and evaluating its effectiveness.

Have you seen teen pregnancy rates improve in the time you have been working on the issue?

I have been working on this issue for the past 10 years. On a positive note, the data show there has been a decline in rates of teen pregnancy locally and nationally, which is progress. On a negative note, the federal government has cut the funding for our current project and interventions like it nationwide, which will create a gap in the delivery of education and services for this important issue.

What sorts of action has the topic of teen pregnancy seen recently?

There has been considerable research dedicated to evaluation of teen pregnancy prevention programs. These studies have led to the identification of evidence-based programs that schools and communities can adopt. What has been missing is research on how to get these programs adopted on a large scale. Our study, like others like it around the country, is making important contributions to our understanding of how to “scale up” implementation of evidence-based programs. More research needs to be done in this area if we are to maximize the public health impact of these programs.

Why is it so important to continue to reduce teen pregnancy rates?

Teen pregnancies are very costly to both the individual and society. It is important that we maintain the level of support for evidence-based teen pregnancy programming in schools and communities, so that the gains we have achieved during the past decades, in terms of reductions in teen pregnancies, are not reversed.

Who should be concerned about teen pregnancy rates?

This is an issue that affects the entire community, particularly youth and their parents. As a society, it should be our goal to provide evidence-based programs and services that will maximize young people’s sexual and reproductive health.

What are the biggest challenges facing those working to reduce teen pregnancy rates?

Currently, one of the major challenges is that there are many groups around the country that are against what we refer to as “comprehensive sex education” approaches. Our Keeping it Real Togetherintervention takes this approach, which involves educating youth about the importance of abstinence as well as knowledge about how to prevent risky sexual behaviors (i.e. providing information about contraception). Although sex education approaches that are “abstinence-only,” that is, those that do not address contraception, have been shown to be ineffective, there are a number of decision-makers that are passing policies that eliminate support for comprehensive sexual health education in favor of abstinence-only approaches.

What can the public do to get involved?

I would suggest that young public health workers educate themselves about these issues by reading authoritative sources of information. They can help to educate communities about the importance of funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs, as well as programs that provide comprehensive education.
To learn more about teen pregnancy and adolescent health, visit the Office of Adolescent Health and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.