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We’re Ignoring the №1 Childhood Health Crisis

 4 months ago
source link: https://robertroybritt.medium.com/were-ignoring-the-1-childhood-health-crisis-c86a0b713da3
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We’re Ignoring the №1 Childhood Health Crisis

One thing kills more U.S. kids than anything else, and nothing is being done about it

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Image: Pixabay

Guns now kill more American children than car crashes, cancer, drugs or any other single cause, based on multiple analyses of data that do not include recent school shootings. The burgeoning childhood health crisis, unique to this country, has pediatricians facing a challenge they never expected when they signed up to care for kids, and frustrated that virtually nothing is being done to curb it.

That’s not some liberal viewpoint. It’s what pediatricians and other physicians are saying.

“When I became a pediatrician, I never thought that I would care for so many children who had been shot,” said Annie Andrews, MD, a pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina. “But as a hospital-based doctor for the past 12 years I’ve seen it happen again and again.”

The statistics are staggeringly sad

Gun-related deaths among those 18 and younger outpaced car-crash deaths for that age group starting in 2019, Andrews and her colleagues report in a new study in the journal Pediatrics.

A separate recent study found youth gun deaths soared 83 percent in the past decade. The picture is bleakest for Black youth, who experienced a 40% rise in gun deaths just from 2019 to 2020, researchers conclude in the journal Lancet Child and Adolescent Health. “We must reverse this deeply troubling and unacceptable trend in youth firearm fatalities, especially among youth of color,” said the study’s co-author, Karen Sheehan, MD, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

“The increasing firearm-related mortality reflects a longer-term trend and shows that we continue to fail to protect our youth from a preventable cause of death,” a separate group of two medical doctors and a statistician from the University of Michigan wrote recently in the New England Journal of Medicine.

There’s some serious irony in this crisis.

As youth firearm deaths rose over the years, mortality among children due to motor vehicle accidents fell, in part due to laws mandating practical solutions: seat belts, car seats, airbags, and reasonable regulation on manufacturers and sellers to ensure vehicles are at least somewhat safe and appropriate for their intended use.

Stronger gun laws save kids’ lives

This childhood health crisis is unique to this country, in part because there are more guns in civilian hands in America than there are citizens. No other country comes close to our level of gun ownership on a per-capita basis. But those sheer numbers are only part of the problem. Lack of reasonable regulation is the elephant in the nation.

The science on gun laws and firearm deaths is clear: Stricter gun legislation — not bans but measures like background checks, gun licensing and gun-dealer regulations — help protect children and other family members.

Youth deaths by firearm were 35% lower in states that had, for at least five years, required universal background checks for purchasing guns, one study found.

“Our findings demonstrate a powerful association between the strength of firearm legislation and pediatric firearm-related mortality,” said study team member Monika Goyal, MD, a researcher at Children’s National Health System. “This association remains strong even after we adjust for rates of firearm ownership and other population variables, such as education level, race/ethnicity, and household income.”

Gun-related homicide and suicide rates are lower in states that have stricter gun regulations, including “laws regulating dealers, background checks, licensing, reporting of lost or stolen guns, multiple purchases, and gun design and manufacturing standards” researchers reported in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. In states with lax gun laws, gun-death rates were lower in certain counties—only those that were surrounded by states with tighter regulations, the study found.

If you weren’t aware of these sobering statistics, there’s a good reason why.

Congress essentially halted all federal funding for gun research in 1996. In 2019, a paltry $25 million was allocated. This has made it notoriously difficult to study firearm injuries and deaths, because unlike deaths from all other common causes, scientists struggle to get funding and to find helpful data and documentation.

“In addition to better understanding the risk and protective factors for firearm injuries and deaths, more funding is essential to develop, implement, and evaluate firearm injury prevention interventions at the individual, hospital, community, and policy levels,” said Sheehan’s colleague, Samaa Kemal, MD, a pediatric emergency medicine fellow at Lurie Children’s.

Guns don’t make homes safer

Despite belief to the contrary, multiple studies in recent years have revealed that guns do not make people safer in their homes. While a responsible gun owner might lock a gun in a safe and never use one to kill a loved one, the reality in many homes is far more disturbing.

Someone with access to a gun is nearly twice as likely to be the victim of homicide and three times more likely to commit suicide, a 2014 review of studies found.

Furthermore, for every 10% increase in gun ownership across the country, firearm deaths involving an intimate partner or other family member goes up 13%, according to a 2019 study in American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

“While personal protection is a commonly cited reason for owning a gun, our research shows that firearm ownership also confers significant risks to loved ones, as they are more likely to be killed if there is a gun in the household,” says Aaron Kivisto, PhD, lead author for that study and an associate professor at the University of Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, guns are used in a horrific number of youth suicides. Having doubled in the past decade, suicide is the second leading cause of death among U.S. adolescents ages 14 to 18. In that age group, 44% of suicides are by firearm, and 70% of the guns used in those attempts were in the home, a new study in the journal Academic Pediatrics found.

Will we ever have the will to fix this?

For whatever reasons — and there are many — childhood health has taken a deadly back seat to absolutist positions on gun rights and gun politics.

Prior to 2020, a majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents supported sticter gun laws, including background checks, a federal database for gun ownership, and bans on assault weapons, according to a Pew Research survey.

In a November 2021 Gallup Poll, support for stricter gun laws remained strong among Democrats at 91%, but it plummeted to just 24% among Republicans and 45% among Independents. The shift coincided with near-doubling in gun purchases during the pandemic. Did America suddenly become a more dangerous place? For children, absolutely yes.

Might the tide of opinion shift again after recent school shootings? Perhaps. A new poll of registered U.S. voters by Morning Consult/Politico, taken after the mass killing in a Uvalde, Texas school, found:

  • 88% support background checks for gun purchases.
  • 75% support a national database of gun ownership.
  • 67% support banning assault-style weapons.

Barring new legislation, however, the lack of gun laws can be seen as a contributing cause, if not a primary cause, of the tragic, preventable childhood health crisis. The imperfect example of laws around car manufacturing, ownership and operation suggest that children would be safer if the purchaser and owner of a gun were ever-so-slightly inconvenienced by a little education, a license, and maybe some regulation on just how powerful the thing can be.

For the record, I’m a health and science writer who grew up hunting. I was required to take a firearm safety course to get a hunting license in my youth, and I’m not opposed to responsible gun ownership, though I no longer own one. You can sign up to receive an email when I publish a story, or become a Medium member to directly support me and other writers and gain full access to all Medium stories. — Rob


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