Unintentional injuries accounted for more than half of all deaths among U.S. children aged 1-19 years in 2016, according to a new study based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER) database.
WONDER collects data from U.S. death certificates for 57 vital-statistics jurisdictions, and the 2016 data included 20,360 deaths. Injuries accounted for 12,336 deaths; unintentional injuries accounted for 57% or 7,057 deaths. Approximately one in five U.S. youth deaths (21%) were suicides, and another one in five (20%) were homicides.
Motor vehicle accidents, also responsible for one in five (20%) of all deaths, were the leading cause of accidental deaths, followed by firearm-related injuries, which accounted for 15% of all deaths. Of the firearm-related deaths, 59% were homicides, 35% suicides, 4% accidental, and 2% undetermined.
The only high-ranking noninjury cause of death overall was neoplasms, yet childhood cancer accounted for just 9% of all deaths. Suffocation was the cause of 7% of deaths, and included homicides, suicides and unintentional injuries.
The remaining causes included drowning (5.9%), drug overdose or poisoning (4.8%), congenital anomalies (4.8%), heart disease (2.9%), fire or burns (1.7%) and chronic lower respiratory disease (1.3%).
“Progress toward further reducing deaths among children and adolescents will require a shift in public perceptions so that injury deaths are viewed not as ‘accidents,’ but rather as social ecologic phenomena that are amenable to prevention,” wrote Rebecca M. Cunningham, MD, and her colleagues at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (N Engl J Med. 2018 Dec 20. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsr1804754). The findings “highlight the need to implement public health strategies that are tailored according to age, underlying developmental factors, and injury-related intent” to reduce the risk for death in children.”
“The sad fact is that a child or adolescent in the United States is 57% more likely to die by the age of 19 years than those in other wealthy nations,” Edward W. Campion, MD, executive editor and online editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, wrote in an editorial that accompanied the study (N Engl J Med. 2018 Dec. 20;379:2466-7. doi: 10.1056/NEJMe1814600). “Children in America are dying or being killed at rates that are shameful.
“Our country has led the way in so much medical research, but the facts summarized by Cunningham et al. reveal a need to invest far more in research on the prevention of the injuries that threaten the lives of children and adolescents,” he said.
In an interview, Ben Hoffman, MD, professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, said the only thing surprising in this report is that nothing is surprising.
“This is the stuff that those of us in injury prevention have been screaming about for decades,” said Dr. Hoffman, also medical director of the Tom Sargent Safety Center at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.
“Unintentional injuries are what kill kids. We have made such tremendous progress in other areas, and we’ve made progress in terms of preventing injuries, but what we see is unacceptable,” he said. “The fact that [injuries] remain such an issue is a testament to the fact that our collective will [to address these issues] has failed us.”
Among children aged 1-4, drowning was the leading cause of death, followed by congenital anomalies and motor vehicle crashes.
Mandated four-sided fencing around pools is a highly effective intervention for reducing drowning risks, Dr. Hoffman said.
Children aged 5-9 represented the smallest proportion of all youth deaths (12%) and were the only age group not to have injuries as the leading cause of death. Malignant neoplasms led the causes of death in this group, followed by car accidents and congenital anomalies.
Adolescents aged 10-19, the widest age range, comprised 68% of all youth deaths, led by motor vehicle accidents, firearms, and suffocation.
“These findings reflect social and developmental factors that are associated with adolescence, including increased risk-taking behavior, differential peer and parental influence, and initiation of substance use,” Dr. Cunningham and her colleagues wrote.
The most concerning trends, according to Dr. Hoffman, were the upticks in motor vehicle deaths, suffocation, and poisonings, the latter driven largely by opioid overdoses, which were responsible for more than half of all overdoses in adolescents.
Addressing these issues “will require an investment in kids, which is not something that our society does really well,” Dr. Hoffman said. “We talk about it, we tiptoe around it, but when push comes to shove, nobody is really willing to support and fund the efforts to do it.”
In his editorial, Dr. Campion observed that despite a decades-long trend of decreasing mortality from car accidents, these deaths began steadily increasing from 2013 to 2016.
Previous gains in this area came from “the widespread adoption of seat belts and appropriate child safety seats, the production of cars with improved safety standards, better constructed roads, graduated driver-licensing programs, and a focus on reducing teen drinking and driving,” the authors stated. Multiple reasons likely account for the reversal, including distracted driving and possibly marijuana use, though the latter requires more data.
Firearm deaths increased by 28% from 2013 to 2016, driven by suicides (a 26% increase) and homicides (a 32% increase), including increasing school shootings.
Dr. Hoffman acknowledged the complexities of addressing firearm deaths, but “there are effective common sense interventions that could be made ... there’s just not the will.” An example is passing, such as mandating safe storage of guns and imposing criminal liability when children negligently acquire access to firearms. While a variety of small groups address child injury issues, a large, coordinated, centralized national advocacy for kids is lacking, he added.
“The approach to this underrecognized public health problem has to be social as well as technological, and the risks are highest in areas of poverty and social isolation,” Dr. Campion wrote. “We are living in a divisive era in which there are few areas of consensus and agreement. Perhaps one of the few core beliefs that all can agree on is that deaths in childhood and adolescence are tragedies that we must find ways to prevent.”
“Every day, 10 babies die in their sleep, 1.7 kids under age 4 drown, and 4 kids over the age of 1 die in car crashes,” Dr. Hoffman said. “We need to acknowledge the impact of unintentional and intentional injuries and recognize that there are things we can do, that we’re complicit in all of those deaths because in every circumstance, there is something we as a society could have done.”
SOURCE: Cunningham et al. N Engl J Med. 2018 Dec 20;379(25):2468-75. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsr1804754.