Teen birth rates in South Carolina have reached an all-time low after declining for four consecutive years, and Aiken County saw its second consecutive decrease, according to the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Numbers released by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control indicate the birth rate for 15- to 19-year-olds declined 8 percent to 39.1 per 1,000 in 2011.

In Aiken County, the teen birth rate declined 2.9 percent in 2010 and 13.8 percent in 2011 to 40.5 per 1,000. Additionally, the statistics show that teen births cost taxpayers about $6 million in Aiken County and $197 million statewide.

Forrest Alton, chief executive officer for the Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, is cautiously optimistic about the numbers.

“This is certainly a time to pause and celebrate our accomplishments,” he said. “However, we cannot become complacent and think that we have the problem solved. In South Carolina, 6,000 young women under the age of 20 become mothers each year and our state still ranks 11th highest in the U.S. for teen births – there is clearly plenty of work left to be done.”

Sloane Whelan, the South Carolina director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood, agreed with Alton. She attributed part of the decrease to teenagers wising up about sexual health.

“Teens are making more responsible decisions,” she said. “Teens are using contraceptives more. We've seen an increase in long-acting, reversible contraceptives.”

Whelan said the drop can also be attributed to greater focus on teen pregnancy.

“Women's health has been on the national forefront lately. A lot of people have identified that they are concerned about teen pregnancy, not only in South Carolina but across the country,” she said. “There are more conversations about women's health and reproductive health in the media.”

Kim Martin, facilities operations manager for Nurture Home in Aiken, was happy to hear about the decrease in teen pregnancies.

“At one point, South Carolina had a reputation for having a high teen pregnancy rate,” she said.

Nurture Home, a transitional shelter for women and their children, has been in business for about 14 years, according to Martin.

“It started off as a place for teen moms that were pregnant. A lot of them were coming out of DSS or foster care and didn't have a place to go when they were pregnant, so that's why they came here,” Martin said, adding that the program is now more “transitional” and only serves women 18 and older.

“A lot of shelters are emergency shelters,” she said. “This is more of a transitional living program where we try to provide women with life skills they may have been lacking. They can stay a little bit longer than at an emergency shelter.”

Martin said the home has seen a decrease in the number of women coming in, but the facility, which can serve five families at a time, still “rarely” has a room empty.

“We get calls every day from somebody looking for shelter,” she said. “There just aren't enough shelters to help people in need of assistance.”

Martin said the home's tenants are appreciative of the assistance they receive, and many keep in touch or come back to visit.

“We try to serve as many people as we can,” she said. “Our goal when they leave here is to have permanent housing and structure in their lives and increased self-determination. We want success stories.”

Alton believes the state can continue to lower its teen birth rate by improving the delivery of age-appropriate, research-proven sex education in public schools; enhancing the conversations that parents have with their children about love, sex and relationships; and increasing access to condoms and other forms of contraception for sexually active youth.

“If we focus our work and investment in these three areas, we will undoubtedly continue to see progress,” he said.

Whelan said that, in addition to health centers in Columbia and Charleston, Planned Parenthood has an educator for the state who provides “age appropriate, medically accurate” information to community groups and organizations around the state. She added that the state legislature has a “unique opportunity” to further impact the teen pregnancy rate with the new numbers, particularly with the state's Comprehensive Health Education Act.

“I'd like them to take a close look at that,” she said. “There are a lot of loopholes in that act, and if we took a close look at it, we could impact that teen birth rate even more.”

She called on lawmakers to examine the act this legislative session.

“The solution to teen pregnancy and unintended pregnancy is prevention,” she said. “What is prevention? It's comprehensive health education in the school system and increased access to reproductive health care.”

For more information on the statistics and teen pregnancy, visit www.teenpregnancysc.org, or www.scdhec.gov.