A reluctance among Hispanic parents to talk openly about sex with their children may be contributing to a high rate of pregnancy among young Latinas in Jackson County, a local coalition has found.

A reluctance among Hispanic parents to talk openly about sex with their children may be contributing to a high rate of pregnancy among young Latinas in Jackson County, a local coalition has found.

According to the Oregon Department of Health, 26 percent of pregnant teens in the county in 2010 were Hispanic, a statistic that has the Jackson County Latino Health Coalition concerned.

Though the county's rate is lower than the state's of 36 percent, it's particularly high for a region with relatively few Hispanics, the coalition says.

Member Teresa Esqueda, 21, is a senior at Southern Oregon University, where she's earning a degree in psychology and education. Because sex is often considered taboo in Latino families, she and her friends at Eagle Point High School didn't have open discussions about reproductive health with their parents, she remembers.

Without that open line of communication, girls were ill-informed and more likely to become pregnant, Esqueda believes.

"As a student I saw a lot of Latina girls that were pregnant," said Esqueda. "The majority of them, actually."

Esqueda and more than a dozen others on the Latino Health Coalition, which includes health care professionals and community members, are working to bring down the high rate of Latina teen pregnancies in the region.

The county's teen pregnancy rate is higher than the state average for girls ages 10-17, ranking it in the top 10 among counties statewide, according to Jackson County Public Health.

In 2011, seven girls per 1,000 population were pregnant in Jackson County, exceeding the state rate of 6.6 girls.

The coalition was formed in 2010 after a number of middle school and high school students in Eagle Point were becoming pregnant, catching the attention of school officials and low-income health care provider La Clinica.

"No one under 15 is ready to be pregnant," said Maggie Sullivan, education program coordinator for Planned Parenthood of Southwest Oregon. "Everyone is always so concerned. They're too young."

Sullivan said the number of young women becoming pregnant in 2009 was concerning, and though the numbers are slightly lower now, the pregnancy rate is still high.

"It's an alarmingly high rate," said Sullivan, who credited La Clinica for stepping forward to help form the coalition, which received a grant from the Northwest Health Foundation to study Latina teen pregnancy in the area.

Eagle Point schools truancy officer Phil Ortega said that while working to keep kids in school, he noticed many young women getting pregnant.

"A lot of the girls I was working with became pregnant and dropped out of school," said Ortega, who works at White Mountain Middle School and is also part of the coalition.

A community engagement group in 2009 met with local Latina women to discuss the issue, and discovered the high rate of pregnancy may come from cultural barriers related to sex education and parent communication, as Esqueda had noticed.

"Latino parents say they don't know how to talk to their children about this," said Sullivan, adding that some parents didn't have good communication about reproductive health with their own parents, and the communication barrier has been passed to the next generation.

"Parents are often in a different world than their youth," said Sullivan, who sees that Hispanic families in Oregon have to bounce between two cultures. "It's hard to navigate two worlds."

Ortega said the coalition has focused on getting clear information out to parents.

"Every parent I know cares about their kids deeply," said Ortega. "We want to get the information to parents so unwanted pregnancies can be avoided."

Many Spanish language brochures on reproductive health are poorly translated, Ortega said.

"Information is not as clear as it could be," Ortega said. "And they need to get the information."

Ortega said the coalition is targeting families of older elementary school students and middle school students, so parents have the information early and are able to talk with their children.

Members also hope to identify bilingual, bicultural parent liaisons in each school to work with parents.

The coalition meets once each month to continue its work in bringing down the Latina pregnancy rate in the area. Jackson County Public Health hopes to decrease the overall Hispanic pregnancy rate by 2014.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.