‘Small investments’ in adolescent health care could yield enormous results

Refugee children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, at a camp in Uganda. (Credit: European Commission DG ECHO Follow/Flickr)

The more than 1.2 million adolescent deaths each year could be prevented, according to a new report by the World Health Organization. A closer look at the data shows that age, gender and economic status play a role.

Overall, road traffic injuries, lower respiratory infections and suicide are the leading causes of children between the ages of 10 and 19. Health programs often overlook adolescents, focusing a lot of attention on the first five years of life.

“Adolescents have been entirely absent from national health plans for decades,” Flavia Bustreo, assistant director-general at the World Health Organization (WHO), said in a statement. “Relatively small investments focused on adolescents now will not only result in healthy and empowered adults who thrive and contribute positively to their communities, but it will also result in healthier future generations, yielding enormous returns.”

The severity of the problem comes into sharp focus when looking more closely at the data. Low- and middle-income countries located in Africa and Southeast Asia represent more than two-thirds of the total adolescent deaths. They are most likely to die from HIV/AIDS, lower respiratory infections, meningitis and diarrhea.

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Those causes deviate from the leading killers for all adolescents – suicide and traffic accidents. Looking at other sub-groups reveals more differences. The leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years old is pregnancy or childbirth complications. It is driven by the high teen pregnancy rate in low- and middle-income countries.

The good news is that both the pregnancy rate and maternal mortality rate for teen girls is falling, but the fact that it is still a significant risk shows the rates need to be lower. The WHO recommends increasing access to contraceptives and enforcing laws that ban marriages for children under 18 years old as two significant steps that can help with the problem.

HIV has a different problem. The number of HIV-related deaths is down by 30 percent since peaking in 2006, but the mortality rate among adolescents is rising. It may be because care for babies with HIV is succeeding, but not continuing as the children get older, the WHO suggests. Just like teen pregnancy, HIV is a problem that mostly affects people in developing countries.

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Reducing traffic accidents was a focus issue for the WHO last week. It argued that lowering speed limits would reduce the 1.25 million deaths each year. A target speed limit of 30 miles per hour or less is essential for urban areas, WHO officials said, as well as speed law enforcement.

“Improving road safety is one of the biggest opportunities we have to save lives around the world. And the good news is that we already know how to do it,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement last week. “A world in which far fewer lives are lost to automobile accidents is possible and entirely within our reach. It is up to all of us to make it a reality.”

The differences among regions and groups in the report bolster the WHO’s main message: most deaths are preventable. Improved access to health care will go a long way to cutting the 1.2 million annual adolescent deaths. So will policy changes like increasing access to contraceptives and enforcing slower speed limits for road traffic.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.