updated 12/5/2007 7:54:54 PM ET 2007-12-06T00:54:54

In a troubling reversal, the nation’s teen birth rate rose for the first time in 15 years, surprising government health officials who had no immediate explanation.

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The birth rate had been dropping since its peak in 1991, although the decline had slowed in recent years. On Wednesday, government statisticians said it rose 3 percent from 2005 to 2006.

U.S. health officials said it was possibly a one-year statistical blip and not the beginning of a new upward trend.

But several experts said they have been expecting a jump. They blame the increase on increased federal funding for abstinence-only health education programs that do not teach how to use condoms and other contraception.

Some key sexually transmitted disease rates have been rising, including syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. The rising teen pregnancy rate is part of the same phenomenon, said Dr. Carol Hogue, an Emory University professor of maternal and child health.

“It’s not rocket science,” she said.

The new report is based on a review of more than 99 percent of the birth certificates from last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A final report is due out next year, but the findings are not expected to change significantly, CDC officials said.

The new teen birth numbers are based on the 15-19 age group, which accounted for about 99 percent of the more than 440,000 births to teens in 2006.

The rate rose to nearly 42 births per 1,000 women in that age group, up from 40.5 in 2005. That translates to an extra 20,000 births to teen mothers in 2006, according to CDC data.

The CDC also reported that births to unwed mothers reached an all-time high in 2006, but that is part of a continuing upward trend and was expected.

Health officials cautioned that the rise in teen births is not the chief cause of births to unwed mothers, however. Teens account for fewer than a quarter of unwed mothers, said Stephanie Ventura, head of the CDC’s Reproductive Statistics Branch

About thirty years ago, more than half of unwed mothers were teenagers.

Women in their 20s and 30s represent the largest proportion of unwed mothers, Ventura said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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