More than 1.2 million young people across the world aged 10 to 19 died in 2015, according to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO). And the majority were killed by preventable causes like road traffic injuries, suicides, and interpersonal violence.
“Most of these deaths can be prevented with good health services, education and social support. But in many cases, adolescents who suffer from mental health disorders, substance use, or poor nutrition cannot obtain critical prevention and care services–either because the services do not exist, or because they do not know about them,” wrote the global health agency.
Road traffic injuries were the number of killer of young people (particularly boys aged 15 to 19). They claimed 115,000 adolescent lives in 2015. What’s even more concerning in some ways is that most of these victims weren’t car drivers, but rather pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists.
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The reason is unclear. But some experts surmise that it could be due to a combination of unsafe road conditions, risky teen behavior like drug and alcohol abuse, and impaired drivers who cause the accidents.
Causes of adolescent death diverge significantly depending on a person’s geographic and socioeconomic conditions. For instance, teenage girls in low- and middle-income nations disproportionately die from pregnancy-related factors while young people of either sex in those regions grapple with lower respiratory infections like pneumonia and other lung conditions—a potential consequence of poor air quality and indoor ventilation. Earlier this year, the WHO estimated that pollution and environmental risks kill 1.7 million children annually.
In regions like southeast Asia and Europe, self-harm is a major scourge. “Violence, poverty, humiliation and feeling devalued can increase the risk of developing mental health problems,” the WHO notes, adding that mental issues usually crop up at an early age but are never diagnosed, sometimes leading to tragic consequences in later teen years. In fact, depression generally is now the world’s most widespread illness.
These realities call for major changes to the ways countries approach young people’s health care. “Adolescents have been entirely absent from national health plans for decades,” said Dr. Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General of the WHO, 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.”