Health Secretary Alan Milburn is in his constituency today to give his official blessing to Darlington's local teenage pregnancy strategy.

Women's Editor Christen Pears looks at the some of the work being done in the borough.

BRITAIN has the highest rate of teenage births in Western Europe. In 1998, alarming figures revealed there were 41,000 conceptions among the under-18s, resulting in 23,600 births.

Last week, new research showed that teenage pregnancies in the North-East had fallen to a record low, although some parts of the region still have a higher than national average rate. Darlington is one of the areas forging ahead, and unwanted pregnancies among girls under the age of 18 in the borough have dropped 20 per cent in recent years to below the national average.

The Darlington strategy is the culmination of two years' work to provide a framework for advice, care and support for pregnant teenagers. This ties in with the Government's ten-year plan, set out in 1999 with the aim of halving the rate and reducing long term social exclusion for teenage mothers and their children. To do this it is providing £60m nationally over the next decade.

Darlington Primary Care Trust's teenage pregnancy co-ordinator Donna Thorne says: "A lot of work has been going on to prevent unwanted teenage pregnancies and to support young people when they do occur.

"Young people are bombarded by sex in the media and popular culture yet there is still a lot of ignorance surrounding it. The more information they have the more likely they are to abstain, or if they do go ahead, they will be more careful. Ambition is the best form of contraception."

The teenage pregnancy strategy is being hailed as the "joined-up approach" to the issue and involves all the statutory bodies, community groups and voluntary organisations. It aims to provide youngsters with better sex and relationship education and services which are more accessible to the nearly 100 teenagers a year in the borough who become pregnant.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn is in his constituency today, visiting a variety of agencies which have been working tirelessly to get the prevention message over to teenagers and support young people when they do find themselves pregnant.

These include McMullen House School, which provides education about sex and relationship issues, giving youngsters the knowledge and confidence they need to make informed decision. Harewood House is home to the Bears Group - a social and befriending service for young parents who often find themselves isolated and abandoned by their friends.

Other initiatives include the C-Card condom distribution scheme being pioneered at First Stop in Tubwell Row and Gladstone Hall, a former residential nursing home due to be demolished to provide six flats for lone teenage parents.

But despite the progress being made, there is still a lot of ignorance and prejudice surrounding teenage pregnancy. Mr Milburn's tour will end at Darlington Football Club, Feethams, where ten drama students from Darlington College of Technology will perform a play with a teenage pregnancy theme.

Accompanying Mr Milburn will be Darlington Borough Council's executive member for Social Services and PCT non-executive director Bill Dixon.

"We are pleased there is a decrease in the number of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies - we have seen one of the biggest falls nationally," he says. "But we will not be resting on our laurels. Children born to teenagers have a high probability of having babies themselves in their teens. We have got to break this cycle."