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LONDON (Reuters) - Road accidents, pregnancy and childbirth complications, suicide, violence, the AIDS virus and tuberculosis are the biggest killers of young people across the world, according to a study published Friday.
Researchers supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) said their study -- the first to look at global death rates in those aged 10 to 24 -- exposed as myth adolescents' belief that they are stronger and fitter than other age groups.
In reality, they said, 2.6 million young people are dying each year and most of those deaths are preventable. Some 97 percent of the deaths were in low- and middle-income countries.
"Mortality rates in low-income and middle-income countries were almost four-fold higher than were those in high-income countries, a difference that was particularly pronounced for young women," the authors wrote on their study in The Lancet.
According to the WHO, there are more young people in the world today than ever before -- 1.8 billion 10 to 14 year-olds account for 30 percent of the world's population.
But George Patton of the Center for Adolescent Health and Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Australia, who led the study, said the needs of this age group were often eclipsed by the very young, the elderly or the very sick when governments draw up health policies -- an approach he said was increasingly risky as economic development continues.
"We are seeing a shift of mortality to adolescence with economic development," Patton told a news conference in London. "No longer can politicians and those making policy say 'young people are healthy. We don't need to worry'. They do die."
Patton's study found that two in five deaths worldwide in this age group were due to injuries and violence, with young men in low and middle-income regions such as eastern Europe and parts of South America at particularly high risk.
The top cause of adolescent male deaths was road traffic accidents at 14 percent, followed by violence and suicide. Road accidents were also the biggest overall killer, accounting for 10 percent of all deaths in the 10 to 24 age group, with suicide next at 6.3 percent.
The researchers said this suggested the current focus on AIDS and other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis in this age group, while important, was "an insufficient response."
Maternal conditions including pregnancy and childbirth were a leading cause of adolescent female deaths, at 15 percent. The study showed dramatic disparities in maternal death rates.
Rich nations like Britain have a 1 percent maternal death rate while 26 percent of female deaths in Africa are related to childbearing.
"It is shocking the levels of maternal mortality that still exist," Krishna Bose, of the WHO's child and adolescent health department, told the news conference. "There is no reason at all for women to die in the process of giving birth."
Of the total adolescent deaths, 97 percent were in low- and middle-income countries and some 65 percent were in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, despite these regions containing 42 percent of 10-24 year olds.
High-income countries had only 3 percent of the deaths, despite having 11 percent of the population in this age range.
Editing by Maggie Fox and Elizabeth Fullerton