Death rates for kids climb at a pace not seen for 50 years

Head stone on a child's grave.
Head stone on a child's grave. Photo credit Getty Images

The Journal of the American Medical Association has found alarming data that shows mortality rates for children are rising at rates not seen since the 1970s.

While America had maintained years of progress in seeing younger people reach adulthood, the analysis, published earlier this month, found that the death rate for children and adolescents increased by almost 20% from 2019 to 2021.

Despite mortality rates in adults rising in recent years and life expectancy falling because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the research from JAMA found that pediatric death rates are rising for other reasons.

Data found in the report shows that adolescent boys are dying at nearly twice the rate of girls. Data also shows Black and Hispanic boys are dying in homicides at much higher rates than non-Hispanic whites.

The authors of the report wrote that the increases are considered the “largest in decades” and come after a “period of great progress in reducing pediatric mortality rates.”

However, that period now appears to be over, with death rates rising due to “manmade pathogens,” a term researchers used to describe things like guns and drugs.

“We are at a point where the threat to children’s health is not coming from a microorganism or a cancer cell,” Steven Woolf, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the lead author of the report, said. “It’s coming from bullets and drugs and cars.”

Woolf and his fellow researchers found that for children of both genders and multiple races, death rates are rising in several causational categories. These categories include car accidents, drug overdoses, gun violence, and more.

For gun-related deaths, the report found they have become more of a common trend throughout the last half-decade, with homicides and suicides by gun accounting for nearly half of the overall increase in child mortality in 2020. The report noted that homicides among children, most of which involved guns, rose by 40% between 2019 and 2021.

Another common cause of death was fatal car accidents, which researchers said had been on the decline for years before rebounding and elevating the youth death toll.

Alcohol and drugs caused twice as many child deaths in 2021 as they did in 2019, with the report noting that most of them were determined to be accidental overdoses.

While the report admits that child mortality rates have risen and fallen throughout the years, the rate at which we are seeing it occur now is historical for the 21st century.

“But an increase of this magnitude has not occurred in half a century and perhaps has not occurred since the influenza pandemic,” Woolf said. For reference, the influenza pandemic ended in 1919.

In order to complete the report, researchers used death-certificate data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Woolf shared that dismissing the new data as a phenomenon caused by the pandemic would be dangerous, as he highlighted suicide rates among children have risen since 2007, homicides have climbed since 2013, and overdose deaths began increasing in 2019.

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