The World Health Organization has delivered dramatic news about the causes of death for young people the world over. Governments and health agencies have made great strides in reducing deaths of young children through immunization and programs that address maternal and infant care. But adolescents have somehow fallen through the cracks.

Dr. Anthony Costello, director of WHO’s Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health told VOA, “We’re finding 1.2 million (adolescents) die each year. That’s 3,000 deaths a day. That’s 10 jumbo jets.” What’s more, Costello says these deaths are largely preventable.

The study shows traffic injuries are the top cause of death among adolescents, those between 10 and 19. In most cases, the adolescent is struck by a car while walking or riding a bicycle.

Other leading causes of death include lower respiratory infections and suicide, the report found. The causes differ by gender, age and region. Boys between 15 and 19 years old are more likely to die from traffic injuries than girls or than younger boys. In sub-Saharan Africa, children are more likely to contract HIV.   

Girls between 10 and 14 are at risk for getting respiratory infections from indoor air pollution and from breathing in fumes from cooking fuels. Older girls, between 15 and 19, had a greater risk of death from pregnancy complications, childbirth or unsafe abortions. Teenage girls generally have small pelvises which lead to difficult labor.  

Costello said pregnant adolescent girls are also “more likely to get high blood pressure; they may be more vulnerable to bleeding, they may be more anemic. They may be in situations more vulnerable to malaria, to HIV.”  

The point of the study that was conducted by the WHO and partners at other U.N. agencies and the World Bank.

Looking forward

While the study focuses on the causes of death, Costello said the point was to help develop a framework and a plan to improve the health of adolescents. If adolescents had access to good health services, education and social support, fewer young people would die. In the case of traffic related deaths, he said better traffic laws, speed limits, the use of seatbelts could save lives in countries that don’t have strict driving safety laws. Costello pointed out that “In India, for example, there are 90,000 deaths on the road each year; many of those are adolescents and children.”

Dr. Flavia Bustreo, the assistant director-general at WHO, said, “Adolescents have been entirely absent from national health plans for decades.” The report proposes changing these plans and trying to help adolescents develop healthy lifestyle habits.

Costello said, “The roots of diabetes, of heart attacks, of strokes, of lung cancer, the root of that lies in the adolescent years, how the adolescents approach nutrition, and diet and exercise, whether they start to smoke or not, or abuse other substances.

Concept shift

Costello said countries need to create more adolescent friendly cities so adolescents have places to play, gather together safely and avoid gang violence.  

“Governments have got to invest in young people,” Costello said, because “they’re the future. We mustn’t be afraid to involve children in designing their own environments, in coming up with creative ideas, in working with peer groups, and investing in things that will give them an exciting life without exposing them to long term risks that could be avoidable.”

A study published in The Lancet in April shows that improving the physical, mental and sexual health of adolescents could result in significant economic returns. The study contends that an investment of about $4.60 per person per year would yield more than 10 times as much in benefits to society. This study was conducted by researchers from Victoria University and the University of Melbourne along with the United Nations Populations Fund.

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