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Thursday, November 19, 1998 Published at 08:13 GMT


Children unnecessarily at risk of accidents

Injury is the main cause of death and acquired disability in children

Health campaigners are calling for a complete overhaul of the way the UK treats injuries - the leading cause of death among young children.

From 1980 to 1995 there were 25,474 accidental deaths of children in the UK.

Child injuries cost the country around £15bn a year, of which at least £1.2bn is due to direct treatment costs.

The British Medical Journal publishing group and the Child Accident Prevention Trust published the first ever policy document on childhood injury prevention in the UK on Thursday.

They want to set the agenda for improving the UK's injury rate and they are being backed by the Department of Health.

Professor Stephen Jarvis of the University of Newcastle said childhood injury deaths were twice as common as deaths from cancer, but received "minute resources".

He called for an investment of at least £12m in research and strategies for reducing injuries.

More funding

Campaigners, who have the support of leading child health experts, say investment in preventing injury is "minimal".

"Injury prevention gets far less funding for research than many diseases that affect far fewer people," said Professor Barry Pless of Montreal's Children's Hospital.

[ image: Professor Barry Pless: about 30% of deaths could easily be prevented]
Professor Barry Pless: about 30% of deaths could easily be prevented
Professor Pless said at least 30% of childhood deaths from accidents could be prevented "relatively easily".

Simple measures such as wearing cycle helmets, fitting smoke alarms and banning bull bars on cars could have a dramatic impact.

But the most important safety measure is to reduce traffic accidents which account for most injuries.

Professor Pless said: "If we could reduce any other disease by this margin and nothing was done the public would surely be outraged."

He thinks much of the blame is due to policy makers continuing to see injuries as accidents or "random acts of bad luck" instead of preventable events.

He also puts the UK's failure to act down to a lack of pressure groups pushing for reform.

He says changes need not be expensive. They can, for example, include the introduction of lower speed limits.

Dr Ian Roberts, director of the child health monitoring unit at the Institute of Child Health, said that every year:

  • there were 1,400 injury deaths a year among children in England and Wales
  • two million children were admitted to accident and emergency departments with injuries
  • 10,000 children are permanently disabled.

He added that class was a big factor in injuries, with children from lower social classes being on average five times more likely to suffer injuries than those from the highest class.

"It is child slaughter on a gramd scale and it is irresponsible to ignore it," he said.

Dr Liz Towner of the University of Newcastle, said children from poorer families were more likely to suffer from injuries, for example, because they tended to play in traffic-filled areas more, have less access to gardens and live in places where wiring was dangerous.

She called for more research into the effects of social deprivation on injuries and more studies on adolescent and sports and leisure injuries.

Coordinated approach

The document compares the UK experience with that in other countries, including Sweden and Australia which are way ahead of the UK.

And it says the US' record has improved enormously since it adopted a coordinated approach to the problem.

It now has a national centre to research the problem and suggest solutions.

The campaigners say the UK needs its own equivalent national centre which can improve understanding about the causes of injuries, the role of social deprivation in causing injuries and how to prevent them.

They call for the setting-up of national research centres in universities in each of the five UK nations as a step to achieving a British research centre.

They say the centres should be multidisciplinary as injuries cross over many areas, including public health, transport, environment and socioeconomic regeneration.

Health minister Tessa Jowell said: "Accidental injuries represent a major public health problem. They not only inflict an emotional burden on those who protect and care for children, but also reflect an unacceptale socio-economic bias.

"Children from poor homes are far more likely to be injured in an accident than children from more prosperous backgrounds. This bias cannot be allowed to continue."

The policy document, Action on Injury, is published in the medical journal Injury Prevention.

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