A new study, published in the current issue of Health Affairs, found that kids born in the United States are 70% more likely to die before they reach adulthood than kids in other wealthy, developed countries.
Nope, this is not a joke, or a sensationalized headline. These are facts, compiled and presented by medical researchers from some of our most prestigious and respected medical universities, and published in a reputable medical journal.
And it’s as shocking and horrifying as it sounds.
Here’s the deal: The researchers looked at death rates from the past 50 years among kids in America as well as 19 other developed countries like Canada, Australia, France, Sweden, and the UK. They found that child deaths dramatically decreased since 1960 for all countries studied. That’s the good news, even for the U.S.
But death rates for American kids is significantly higher than the rates for all the other countries studied. In fact, the researchers estimate that since 1961, there were 600,000 excess child deaths among American children versus children in other developed countries. They surmise that if these same children had been born in other developed countries, their deaths would have been prevented.
It’s a glaring and disturbing disparity that should deeply concern us all.
“In all the wealthy, democratic countries we studied children are dying less often than they were 50 years ago,” Ashish Thakrar, internal medicine intern at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, and lead author of the study, tells Vox. “But we found that children are dying more often in the United States than in any similar country.”
According to the study researchers, the greatest disparities in death rates were among American infants and teenagers. Between 2001 and 2010, the risk of death in the U.S. was 76% greater for infants and teenagers (and 57% higher for children ages 1–19), say the researchers.
So what’s causing this unconscionable problem?
As for the high death rate among infants, the researchers point to problems in America’s healthcare system, and the fact that it’s so freaking hard to get good health insurance, especially among poorer families.
Think about it. Many mothers, especially from lower-income brackets, go without health insurance before their pregnancies. This means that any underlying health conditions are ignored, and can negatively impact their pregnancies. Still, other mothers don’t receive proper prenatal care for their babies, because even once a woman becomes pregnant, it can take forever to wade through all the red tape and get Medicaid or other insurance.
“It really seems to be the impact of our fragmented health care system,” said Thakrar, discussing the study results with Vox. “Mothers who are qualifying for Medicaid for the first time because they’re mothers might be seeing doctors for the first time. They might not have a family physician, or a clear support system.”
Poverty and other societal factors play a definite role in the high infant mortality rates among babies. Thakrar points to the rising rates in poverty since the 1980s as another underlying cause for our terribly high rates of infant deaths.
Additionally, we would be remiss not to add to the role that racism plays in this disaster as well, with infant mortality rates strikingly higher among black babies in America. Unconscionable.
And what about the glaringly higher rates of death among American teenagers?
These elevated rates have two main causes, according to the study: car accidents and gun-related deaths. From the ages of 15 to 19, teens are twice as likely to die in car crashes than teens in other developed countries. Teens are 82 times more likely to die from gun violence, which makes sense considering America is home to half of all civilian-owned guns in the world, and has a gun-related death rate 10 times higher than other developed countries.
“This study should alarm everyone,” Thakrar told CNN. “The US is the most dangerous of wealthy, democratic countries in the world for children.”
WE AGREE. Everyone should certainly be alarmed, concerned, and ready to do something about this.
And if you are one to think, “Oh, this stuff doesn’t really happen” or “This isn’t going to happen to me,” then you need to take a seat and check your privilege immediately. We are all affected by issues like these, or might be some day. And we all really need to start caring—not just about our own lives, but about the lives of those around us and in our communities.
The researchers agree that the way to reduce these deaths isn’t just to put a Band-Aid on it all or pretend these things aren’t happening. These problems need to be addressed at their root. Our social systems need addressing, as do our governmental policies.
“To turn around these trends, we will need to think beyond medical care to address the social environment children live in,” Thakrar tells CNN. “Every child deserves the opportunity to live a full, healthy and safe life. These findings show that we are not living up to that promise and that we have fallen short of that promise for the last 30 years.”
If studies like this sicken you to your core, they should. We need to pour all our resources—and money—into making sure our children have everything they need to live full, safe, healthy, and long lives. And we need to ask our lawmakers to do the same.
We are talking about our kids here—our babies—and they deserve nothing but the best.