The teen birthrate in Hennepin County declined sharply last year and has fallen by nearly two-thirds since 2009, health officials reported Tuesday.

The county tallied 339 births to teenagers age 15 to 19 last year, down 21% from 2017 and about 65% since 2009, according to data reported Tuesday by the county's Public Health Department.

Health officials point to a multimillion-dollar teen pregnancy education program that began across the county in 2006. It includes ready access to many forms of birth control in a "teen friendly" setting, and improved education for teens and parents on adolescent sexual health.

"Preventing teen pregnancies is a very high priority for Hennepin County, and our work has been strikingly successful," County Board Member Mike Opat said in a statement accompanying the release. "We all know that teens are not ready to become parents. This progress is the best kind of prevention work we do in county government."

The trend in Minnesota's most populous county is consistent with numbers, tatewide and nationally. Minnesota's teen birthrate fell by more than half between 2010 and 2018 and last year was slightly higher than in Hennepin County. The United States has seen its teen birthrate drop by more than half in that same period.

"We have done a lot of work to ensure that young people have access to teen-friendly clinics," said Emily Scribner-O'Pray, an analyst and one of three county experts overseeing the program. The effort, which has received roughly $18 million, mostly from the federal government, operates in middle and high schools and six public and nonprofit clinics.

Scribner-O'Pray said the program offers "a degree of privacy for these teens" in line with state law, which allows adolescents as young as 13 to make their own decisions about their sexual health without parental consent.

Abortion is not contributing to the decline in teen birthrates, she added, noting that "abortion rates are lower than they've ever been."

She also noted that the county program emphasizes the most effective form of birth control.

"Abstinence is the safest way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection," Scribner-O'Pray said. "We also talk to people about consent [and] how it's important that both people agree to [sexual] activity."

Scribner-O'Pray said the project is still working to reduce the disproportionate number of teen births occurring among minority youths. Teen birthrates in the county were highest in 2018 among Hispanic girls, closely followed by Native American and black girls. Still, she said, their birthrates have declined sharply over the years, along with those of Asian-Americans and whites.

Minneapolis, with about one-third of the county's population and the greatest degree of racial diversity, accounted for more than half the county's teen births (178) last year. Within Minneapolis, about 80% of teens giving birth came from five neighborhoods: Camden, Near North, Powderhorn, Phillips and Central.

The bulk of the program's funding — an annual $1.5 million federal grant from the Office of Population Affairs — is set to expire in June, and Scribner-O'Pray acknowledged that the county's progress might send the unintended message that continued federal financing is no longer needed. Should the federal money dry up, she said, "it would have huge implications."

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482